COVID-19 is accelerating innovation. David Kirwan, head of technology at Accenture in Ireland, looks at the implications
The economic slowdown caused by COVID-19 has been historic. However, the pandemic is having precisely the opposite effect when it comes to innovation. In fact, companies, universities, governments, and individuals the world over have shown they can pivot rapidly, take significant risks and innovate in unexpected ways.
Meanwhile, human-AI collaboration tools have leapt off the pages of product roadmaps and are being used by scientists and businesses alike to address the virus. This wave of innovation is helping to save lives and livelihoods during a time of great uncertainty. However, there is a danger that by only focusing on short-term needs, businesses may soon find that they are out of step with the people they serve.
COVID-19 and the tech-clash
The 20th edition of Accenture’s Technology Vision report, which predicts the key technology trends that will redefine businesses over the next three years, notes the dangers of ‘tech-clash,’ or the widening gap that emerges when technology fails to meet the values and expectations of people. It is exacerbated by the pandemic with people relying on technology more than ever before to connect, work and live.
Before the crisis, there were already many examples of tech-clash. The proliferation of smart products, for example, was jarring with closed business ecosystems. Customer demand for choice was conflicting with vendor lock-in. Fear over the impact of AI in the workplace was colliding with the increasing use of automation.
COVID-19 has thrown fuel onto the flames of the tech-clash. Take the perennial issue of data privacy as an example. Before the crisis, people were growing wary of how enterprises use their data and were seeking more openness and transparency. Now, the requirement for location and health data to track the spread of the virus has made this debate much more complicated.
Many people have shown a willingness to suspend core values around things such as privacy to help in the public health emergency. However, enterprises taking this for granted and thinking only of the short-term will ultimately amplify the tech clash in the long run.
As businesses increasingly retain some ownership and control over smart devices, even after customers purchase them, many people are starting to feel frustrated by constant change in products they consider to be theirs.
Revisiting the Tech Trends
Accenture identified five trends in its Technology Vision 2020 report and across the board, COVID-19 is accelerating forces that were present before the crisis making them more relevant than ever:
- The I in Experience. Three in four Irish business and IT executives surveyed (75%) believe that competing successfully in this new decade requires organisations to elevate their relationships with customers as partners. Organisations will need to design personalised experiences that amplify an individual’s agency and choice. This turns passive audiences into active participants by transforming one-way experiences — which can leave people feeling out of control and out of the loop — into true collaborations.
- AI and Me. Currently, only 34% of Irish organisations report using inclusive design or human-centric design principles to support human-machine collaboration. Artificial intelligence (AI) should be an additive contributor to how people perform their work, rather than a backstop for automation.
- The Dilemma of Smart Things. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of Irish executive’s report that their organisation’s connected products and services will have more, or significantly more, updates over the next three years. As businesses increasingly retain some ownership and control over smart devices, even after customers purchase them, many people are starting to feel frustrated by constant change in products they consider to be theirs. COVID-19 is increasing our need for these smart and updateable products, which have great public health potential.
- Robots in the Wild. Irish executives are split in their views of how their employees will embrace robotics: 50% say their employees will be challenged to figure out how to work with robots, while 50% believe that their employees will easily figure out how to work with them. Now, as more people stay home and distancing becomes the new normal, robots are critical to “contact-less” solutions and governments.
- Innovation DNA. Two-thirds (67%) of Irish executives believe that the stakes for innovation have never been higher, so getting it “right” will require new ways of innovating with ecosystem partners and third-party organisations. Disruptive technology like distributed ledgers, AI, extended reality, and quantum computing are proliferating, providing enterprises many routes to innovation. To manage all this technology—and evolve at the speed demanded by the market today—organisations will need to establish their own unique innovation DNA.
COVID-19 as a change-agent
Over the past several months, organisations in every sector have scrambled to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and during this time, the value of human-machine collaboration has never been clearer.
In response to the crisis, AI applications have been used to augment and assist human workers across a range of new, short-term use cases. AI-powered chatbots are assisting health workers as they screen and triage patients, algorithms are helping healthcare suppliers reconfigure their supply chains, and AI is even helping in the race to find a vaccine.
However, it is not only in the medical field that AI-machine collaboration can prove its worth. Many businesses are struggling to manage with a reduced workforce and the need to comply with social distancing rules. With understanding and acceptance of AI at an all-time high, businesses must start thinking about how the technology can be harnessed to bring out the full power and potential of their people.
It should not just be focused on automation – the real value is in collaboration. This means re-imagining AI as an addition and augmentation to how people perform their work. The key here is to get people to understand and trust the technology more. The technology needs to be made more explainable. If people are interacting with something, they need to understand what it is doing.
Bringing the future forward
Accenture’s Technology Vision’s pre-pandemic survey of Irish business leaders found that while 66% of respondents (compared with 79% globally) believed that collaboration between humans and machines will be critical to innovation in the future, only 34% reported having inclusive design or human-centric design principles in place. If we ran this survey today, I would expect the numbers to be much higher.
Workers, governments, and the public are seeing AI in the best possible light. Businesses have therefore never had a better opportunity to deploy AI tools. Luckily, this has never been easier.
Thanks to advances in technologies such as natural language processing and computer vision, AI tools can be completely intuitive for humans to use – as easy, in fact, as working with a human co-worker. If organisations can get this next stage of the AI journey right and deploy the tools at scale in a way that enables true human-machine collaboration, then the sky is the limit.
COVID-19 has supercharged innovation, and opportunities and challenges that were once years out are now today’s reality. To emerge stronger from this period and thrive in the years beyond, companies need to innovate, invent, and redefine themselves now.
Read all the findings for each of the trends from Accenture’s Technology Vision 2020 report here.