DATA: THE ‘NEW OIL’ THAT POWERS BETTER BUSINESS

Artificial intelligence will be the growth engine of the future if businesses are to prosper in a rapidly changing world

MARIO BOJILOV TRAVELS THE WORLD AS AN EVANGELIST FOR DATA MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS THAT HE CONSIDERS ESSENTIAL IF BUSINESS IS TO SURVIVE AND THRIVE IN A RAPIDLY CHANGING WORLD. THE KEYS TO FUTURE PROSPERITY, HE BELIEVES, ARE BETTER DATA MANAGEMENT, BETTER DATA SECURITY AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI).

As his Australia-based company, Meta Business Systems (MBS), puts it: “Data is the ‘new oil’, and our objective is to bring it to business professionals and make it easy for them to apply their business nous in using it.”

He was recently in Colombo on behalf of MBS Academy to conduct a two-day seminar titled ‘Business Intelligence and Blockchain—Making Better Business Decisions and Improved Analytics’. His takeaway message is that, while Sri Lanka has that ‘business nous’, in too many cases, it lacks the technical expertise and mindset—and trust—to fully exploit it. We caught up with him over breakfast at a city-centre hotel that illustrated one small example of a mindset hidebound by bizarrely irrational rules and regulations: they would not allow our photographer to take pictures anywhere on the premises using ‘professional’ camera equipment.

A high-resolution smartphone camera, with its direct link to the Internet and the outside world, was no problem. But it took three layers of management and an hour of negotiation before we were finally allowed to take a tightly restricted picture with the ‘professional’ camera we need for high-quality magazine reproduction. Bojilov laughed, if somewhat ruefully, and made a sideways reference to what he calls ‘siloed data’, where company information is compartmentalised and not accessible for the kind of ‘big picture’ analysis that many companies could benefit from. “It’s a left-hand-right-hand, ours-not-to-reason- why thing that is all too common in many highly structured business environments”, he said.

Much of this, he points out, comes down to trust, or the lack of it, a key factor in how companies manage their data. In the hotel’s case, a junior manager cannot be trusted to use his judgement and allow an exception to the (presumably) high-level decision that is beyond comprehension on common sense grounds alone, never mind sensible business practice. But back to the future, as it were.

The seminar, organised by Sri Lankan corporate-training company Strides, focused on business intelligence (or the lack of it) and a process known as blockchain, a secure cryptographic data-sharing method originally invented to safeguard the public transaction ledger of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.

Th e principal takeaway was understanding how blockchain “can assist organisations to increase trust in the eyes of their stakeholders and the speed of delivering their services and products”, of which effective data analytics and artificial intelligence are—and will be—key components.

Says Bojilov: “Data analytics, the ability to effectively interrogate and analyse business data, will be a key enabler in the digital transformation that artificial intelligence, even at its current level, will bring about, or is already bringing about.

“But that raises an unavoidable issue of trust. Who can a company trust to have unfettered access to all its commercially-sensitive information? And if you put all that information in one place, how do you safeguard it from hackers and cyber-criminals?”

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e jokes that if he wasn’t doing what he does, he could have been a pretty good hacker himself. With training in IT, fi nance, AI and cybercrime detection, he understands well the dangers inherent in putting all your data eggs in one digital basket. MBS Academy’s prime focus is on “helping organisations achieve superior performance by providing innovative solutions for their data management needs”, including “extracting, cleansing, amalgamating and brokering data from various sources”. The point of the exercise is a “data repository (‘data lake’) where it’s easily accessible to business professionals from various parts of an organisation”.

Enter artificial intelligence. As it exists today, it is loosely defined as “an area of computer science that emphasizes the creation of intelligent machines that work and react like humans”. Human intelligence is defined as “general cognitive problem-solving skills. A mental ability involved in reasoning, perceiving relationships and analogies, calculating, learning quickly”.

On a scale of 1–10, says Bojilov, AI is at roughly 3-4 today, but is gaining ground rapidly. With the advent of quantum computers and their consequent mega-fast digital data manipulation—a quantum leap if ever there was one—the capabilities of artificial intelligence will quickly go completely off the top of that 1-10 scale. In a recent interview, Tesla and SpaceX leader and innovator Elon Musk is quoted as saying that “the pace of progress in artificial intelligence (I’m not referring to narrow AI) is incredibly fast.”

“Unless you have direct exposure to groups like DeepMind, you have no idea how fast—it is growing at a pace close to exponential. Th e risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five-year timeframe, ten years at most.”
DeepMind is a London-based organisation “on a scientific mission to push the boundaries of AI, developing programmes that can learn to solve any complex problem without needing to be taught how”.

Bojilov himself referenced potential ‘AI phobia’ when he noted that the Colombo seminar was “one of the most polarised I have ever attended”. Of those present, nearly all senior management, those who commented or asked questions marked him either high or low, with little or no middle ground. This suggests that management’s attitude to AI, and by extension the comprehensive data analysis it will facilitate, are themselves equally polarised. How many managers would want their decisions second-guessed—and possibly exposed as fl awed—by a machine? How many jobs and well-remunerated sinecures would be at risk?

Bojilov believes that Sri Lanka is well placed to benefit from AI and better data analytics in its healthcare sector as well as two specifi c areas that are helping power the national economy: tourism and hospitality, both of which already depend on degrees of AI. Ever done a Google search? For example, “The best holiday destination for 2019?” Or “Th e best luxury hotel in Sri Lanka?” Th e search results are completely dependent on Google’s increasingly sophisticated, narrow, AI-driven algorithms that analyze Internet data harvested and interpreted by AI bots. Th e same goes for the likes of TripAdvisor, which uses customer input and AI to rank hotels and restaurants – rankings that can make or break such establishments. Facebook? YouTube? Instagram? Th e artificial intelligence that sits behind these platforms might well be described as the new ‘invisible hand’, as Adam Smith once described the market forces that drive capitalism itself.

In November, platform spokespeople at ITB Asia, the region’s leading travel trade show, suggested that blockchain be used in corporate travel programmes to drive loyalty, especially among young people.

Ken Kuguru, managing director of APAC at Egencia (Expedia Group), noted that, with AI, “you learn your preferences: where you want to stay, what you like to do, where you sit on the plane”, and as AI becomes mainstream and more accessible, the capacity for prediction analytics, forecasts for expense management, budgets and volume will signifi cantly increase.

At the same time, hotel bed-booking agencies and online travel agencies (OTAs) will also see more reliance on AI and sophisticated data analytics to manage inventories at a time when travellers increasingly eskew direct booking through hotels’ own websites. Meanwhile, Bojilov moots the seemingly radical proposal that the need to better understand and appreciate the potential of AI must begin in schools, “which after all serves the primary purpose of preparing children for a life of gainful employment as adults”.

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his would lay the foundation for the fundamental upskilling and change of mindset that needs to happen if developing economies such as Sri Lanka are to reach their full potential. It’s all in the mind, he says—and if it’s the mind of a machine, we must learn to control it and make use of it.

Somewhat more apocalyptically, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin recently said: “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with enormous opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”