Phil Brunkard 13 July 2017

It’s good to think and be inspired about innovation

I ventured out to Adastral Park in Suffolk last week for BT’s annual Innovation Week. From behind the old-school architecture BT welcomes customers to see the latest exciting research, ventures and innovation activities they are leading on.

The event kicked off promisingly with David Rowan, Editor-at-large of WIRED magazine's UK edition, introducing the audience to several areas of emerging research and innovation. This included one particular piece of innovation I found to be particularly inspirational: Braingate. Braingate is an organisation which has implanted a chip into a paralysed woman’s brain that allows her to drink just by thinking. Ground-breaking stuff in my opinion.

In fact, a common theme at the event was who - or what - is doing the thinking? Namely, Artificial Intelligence (AI) – which is fast becoming a key disruptor into today’s business world. The machines are taking over the thinking.

In his opening speech Gavin Patterson, BT’s CEO, cited AI as a key research area for BT, the third largest investor in R&D in the UK. ‘Businesses that don’t embrace AI will fall behind’ was the clear message.

For me, the AI technology highlights from the event were:

  • A 'Convolutional Neural Network', that uses a deep learning algorithm in the field of machine vision and learning to automatically and visually manage asset inventory;
  • ‘Chatbots’ or Virtual Agents that combine AI with chat interaction within a contact centre environment to help people perform tasks such as locating information or making reservations. These innovative new tools use a combination of natural language processing, sentiment analysis, and user context to provide a better self-service experience to customers;
  • Scheduling and staff rostering tools to enable decision makers with much more detailed insight into the impact of workforce and service changes and the confidence to implement these changes quickly and sustainably – all using AI.

Interestingly, in a recent BT sponsored survey, 95% of organisations operating in the UK public sector are already using at least one form of disruptive technology, compared with 85% of private sector businesses. The same survey also flagged that IT security concerns remain one of the biggest barriers to the adoption of AI and automation – 44% of organisations operating in the public sector believe that greater automation will leave them open to cyber-attacks. But they need not worry - for BT showcased its many sophisticated cyber security tools for mitigating such threats, using – you guessed it - AI.

So where does that leave public sector organisations today as they continue to transform citizen services? From speaking with a number of local government and housing customers attending Innovation Week, there appeared to be three key take-aways from the event:

  • Learn what is possible from other sectors
  • Don’t base your expectations of the future based on what you know today
  • Engender innovation into the culture of the organisation with innovation being business not technology led

Whilst the research and innovation showcased was a blend of what BT is doing for its own business and new services for its customers – there was much more to the event than that. Customers came away feeling inspired about how different innovation ideas can be applied to their organisations - including those in the public sector. This even included immersive video (using a tablet or smartphone paired with a VR headset) for training staff to deal with emergency response situations.

The rate of change of technology innovation is accelerating – we clearly cannot base our assumptions of the future on today’s understanding. David Rowan showed a video from the 1980s predicting what technology would offer beyond 2000 – online banking and shopping plus the ability to communicate within anyone anywhere in the world, all controlled from a console with a large bank of screens – taking over the entire living room. The clip forgot about Moore’s law and the rate of change of form factor. Whilst it correctly predicted the services we need, today they are now all under the control of our mobile device or tablet. So can we really determine how public services will be delivered in say five years’ time? It’s unlikely.

However we can influence and drive change by engendering innovation into the culture of the organisation. As noted, even from the 1980s example, if we focus on the user or business need then the right technology will follow. Perhaps that is why AI is starting to prove to be so successful? As the focus is on improving business processes and functions – the benefits of AI almost become intuitive.

So those that came away feeling inspired (hopefully everyone) must bring that inspiration back into their organisations. If they don’t, they risk failing to meet the ever increasing needs of citizens as more and more of this innovation becomes mainstream. Can we imagine ‘chatbots’ on council websites and AI being used for planning application and benefit processing? Well, why not?

Phil Brunkard, CIO Regional Government & Health, BT

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