Staff Writer
Digital Transformation
3 ways to build a better, data-driven society

What will the world look like in 20 or 30 years, when society is built on data and digital technology? How will this wealth of information be used to inform and propel social and scientific progress and make our lives better? And what can governments and the private sector do now to protect the privacy of consumers? At the Economist Innovation Summit Asia 2019, a panel of legal and technological experts look ahead to a data-driven, fully connected future, and outline three key lessons that organisations must adhere to moving forward.

AI can enrich jobs, not replace them

A common fear surrounding artificial intelligence and mass automation is that human beings will lose their jobs. But Simon Loong, founder of WeLab, has seen staff morale actually increase as a result of implementing AI: “The question we have to ask is: How do we divert human beings to high value areas, and not just answering phones?”

One simple example cited by Loong shows how AI can be used to complement rather than replace human workers: most members of staff want to travel to their hometown to celebrate Chinese New Year, but usually a small number of people are required to stay behind and man the help desk. Two years ago, WeLab developed a chatbot to handle this task, and gave everybody time off for the holiday, leading to “huge employee satisfaction”. Now, chatbots handle about 86 per cent of customer enquiries, freeing up staff to focus on more complex tasks.

We have to ensure AI works fairly for everyone

AI has become an increasingly useful tool in the legal profession, with bots helping to lighten judges’ workloads and inform decisions with regards to sentencing. However, Anna Gamvros, a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright, warns that the data which is used to program these AIs has the potential to contain unconscious racial or gender biases which worm their way into outcomes, especially if that data comes from a limited or homogenous group. “The lack of diversity is going to be problematic, and you should be cautious in the use of this data,” she says. 

Trust is crucial to progress, and that won’t happen overnight

Data has the potential to have hugely positive outcomes and solve big problems, such as connecting previously disparate medical domains in order to drive advances in areas such as cancer research. “But it’s not going to be easy to get there, as it requires people to give their data over to us,” says Christopher Brewer, senior consulting partner at Ogilvy Asia. “Even as awareness and governance of privacy increases, we still don’t trust data to others.” Brewer speculates that a turning point may come with a “catastrophic privacy event” which will cause major backlash among the public and ultimately drive change.

“You need to beyond compliance to built trust with your constituents and customers,” says Gamvros. “It’s using ‘privacy be design’, embedding privacy in your products, making consumers feel like they can deal with you as a trusted organisation.” She points to the recent example of GDPR as a regulation which has set a precedent that brands and governments can follow, in terms of providing information and access to the ways in which consumer data is used, and offering the ability to move or delete information.

Building this consumer confidence will be especially crucial in regions where trust in governments is low. “The government has to earn your trust, that has to be established over time,” says Allen Yeung, former CIO of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. “A government must do what it can to earn that trust and keep its promises.”

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