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Why you'll find humans at the heart of every successful AI project

  • Dan Glessner

    Vice President, Digital

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“Humans are underrated." – Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla

As enterprises enthusiastically invest in artificial intelligence (AI) and intelligent automation technologies to achieve productivity gains and other business objectives, the critical role that humans play is sometimes overlooked. Here, I'll explain why putting humans at the heart of every AI project, also known as a “human-in-the-loop" approach, is critical to success.

Elon Musk learned an important lesson last year when Tesla was investing in robotics and other advanced technologies to ramp up production of its Model 3 electric vehicle. After initially trying to build the most automated automobile production facility in the world, Tesla failed. In an interview, Musk willingly admitted where he had gone wrong: “Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated."[1]

According to research, a quarter of senior executives say they plan to fundamentally reimagine their businesses with AI by the end of 2021. Unfortunately, these AI projects are still “shiny objects," and it is easy for executives to fall into the trap – as Musk did – of thinking that success is dependent solely on the technologies deployed. A critical yet often undervalued ingredient for AI projects is people. Why? Because humans still have unique expertise that machines may never have.

Keeping the human in the loop

The symbiotic relationship between humans and machines in successful AI projects is often referred to as “human-in-the-loop." Here are several ways people play an essential role in the lifecycle of an AI project:

  • Humans have the vision and leadership skills needed to rally resources around an AI project
  • Humans have the communication and empathy skills to ensure that an AI project puts the needs of people first
  • Humans have the industry expertise required to collate the high-quality training data that machines need
  • Humans have the ethical judgment to explore whether an AI-system-generated decision is fair
  • Humans have the process expertise to teach and supervise AI systems into taking effective actions
  • Humans have the governance skills to ensure that AI systems are on track to deliver ideal business outcome

In other words, machines are fast and accurate, but relatively stupid; humans are relatively slow and inaccurate, but brilliant. Working together, machines and humans are powerful beyond imagination. This is the notion behind “human-in-the-loop," which results in higher return on investment for AI projects

In my opinion, AI projects should always include a human-in-the-loop approach. Although some leaders may see AI as a way to reduce headcount and cut costs, a more beneficial approach is to make AI investments that augment human endeavors, because AI promises benefits far beyond mere productivity gains. Organizations that embrace this approach to AI are also more likely to face less resistance from employees.

Avoiding the technology fallacy

Unfortunately, prioritizing technology above humans is still an issue. Many business leaders appreciate the power of technology and are working on their own digital transformations to modernize their companies and increase their competitiveness, but McKinsey states that less than 30% of these initiatives are successful.[2]

Part of the reason for this high failure rate is due to “the technology fallacy," in which executives mistakenly assume that responding to digital disruption in their industry is about adopting and implementing digital technology tools.[3] This is understandable, but the human and organizational aspects of digital transformation are often more important than the technological aspects. In other words, effective digital transformation may not involve new technology at all. The most important transformation work often occurs within human minds. Yes – humans are, indeed, underrated.

Ultimately, AI is changing the nature of work by lowering the cost of prediction. This phenomenon is driving manpower away from analysis and insights and toward creativity, judgment, and leadership. Some worry that AI will take too much work away from humans, but I disagree. Instead, it opens up new opportunities to make the most of the qualities that separate us from the machines.

More than 400 years ago, Galileo asked the question: “Who indeed will set the bounds of human ingenuity?" History has taught us that this boundary does not exist; and machines will help us raise it even higher.

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