THERE’S something about artificial intelligence (AI) which is mesmerisingly different to the other rapid-fire technological advancements and innovations we’ve assimilated into our lives.

AI’s ability to do what humans do, only faster, more accurately and at huge scale is both awesome and scary. Depending on who you listen to, we are either witnessing the next great advancement for humankind or the birth of Skynet.

Scepticism of such a powerful technology is healthy but, faced with imminent planetary destruction (self-inflicted without AI, by the way), there must be a reassuring way to reap the huge benefits of current AI tools without all the p(doom).

I believe this way involves treating AI as a partner in a wider collaboration on a common goal.

AI as a force for good

Now, I am not denying the need for searching answers to questions about unconscious developmental bias, ethics and regulation regarding the more advanced uses of AI. But most of these are not developed yet and we mustn’t let this stop us from making the most of amazing AI tools we have already got.

There’s an image I often use in my presentations showing the development of man, from an ape on all fours to homo sapiens walking upright. I am sure you have seen it. There are variations everywhere. On this scale, AI is barely out of the ape stage. It’s still pretty incredible. But when you look beyond the cool party tricks paraded in the media, it’s not as clever as it looks.

AI excels at two things at the moment:

  1. Simple things that humans can already do (like analysing huge, siloed datasets to draw conclusions) but much faster, consistently and more accurately, enabling real-time insight for even better decision-making.
  2. Straightforward stuff that humans could never do, like assessing water usage, spotting leaks and calculating water loss volume just by analysing acoustic data. Even if the human ear could pick these sounds out from the background noise (it can’t), many of the critical nuances are outside the range of human hearing.


AI is great for business and public services

This is great news for businesses and other organisations because, by doing the grunt work, AI frees skilled human time and talent to make evidence-based decisions, and by extracting new actionable insight from things we couldn’t possibly do in any other way.

There’s no doubt that industries which adapt and embrace this AI will become more relevant and competitive. That’s a fact. At its starkest, it could ultimately mean the difference between continued trading or not.

The stakes are even higher in the public utility sector, where failure in the face of a changing climate has implications for communities or society as a whole. Integrating AI into the realm of water management, for instance, opens up smarter overall operational efficiency, improved targeting for investment, proactive or even preventative emergency response, better resource sustainability and improved customer services.

Overcoming resistance to AI

Being disruptive, technologies like AI encounter additional barriers when it comes to adoption. Because they often add a new level of performance, or even a new previously unavailable feature, they may need changes to existing processes. They may render investment in previous equipment out of date, requiring a write-off. And, depending on its level of maturity when it enters the organisation (some sectors develop their own AI or import AI from another field), there may even be some ongoing development needed.

Then there is the human factor. One of the consistently quoted fears is that AI will replace human workers, leading to job insecurity and unemployment. Businesses often give me this reason why AI is not being used or somehow failing to live up to its promise. Humans are human, they will revert to what they know rather than adapt a lifetime’s experience. They’ll apply unconscious bias in what they choose to believe. Some mistakenly believe AI is infallible only to be disappointed to the point of abandonment when they find out that it isn’t.

Overcoming these barriers requires innovative thinking in its own right. At FIDO, we have disrupted the way we sell, deliver and talk about our AI to make it more accessible, understandable and pose less risk for businesses who, like many smaller utilities, don’t already possess the transformative skills required in-house.

Why AI and human partnerships?

I like the idea of thinking of AI as a partnership with humans because it better reflects its role as part of an adapted process in which humans remain the controlling force and within which AI can continue to develop.

One of the amazing and disruptive things about AI is its ability to adapt and improve in direct response to the environment it finds itself in. This process naturally involves some trial and error and is normal, but it is not what most organisations, skilled at buying traditional off-the-shelf finished products, are accustomed to.

With true AI, some level of adaptation and learning will almost inevitably be required, and a partnership approach also reflects the need for some potentially new adaptive and transformational skills to be incorporated into the process. This could be supplied by the AI provider as partner or another 3rd party implementation expert. Either way it helps overcome adoption barriers and de-risks the process.

By delivering AI transformation in partnership, with education through action, we can bring people with us by demonstrating the benefits for their role. They are allowed time to see for themselves and even influence its uptake within the context of a changing process and role. New opportunities emerge for enhanced performance through automation. As the (new) adage goes, AI won’t take your job, someone using AI will.

A case study in public trust: autonomous vehicles

Even apparently insurmountable issues like ethics and public safety can be skilfully managed with the right collaboration. You’d have to have been off the grid entirely not to have heard the buzz about AI and its impact on our lives and future. Great partnership with concerned communities and their representatives is essential here too.

Take autonomous vehicles as a case in point. Ten years ago, the idea that self-driving cars would be a practical reality on our roads was unthinkable. Developers worked closely with government agencies and established industry standards to ensure the technology’s safe integration and used public awareness campaigns and pilot programs to familiarise people and build a sense of trust and acceptance.

In the context of businesses and public utilities like water management, a similar collaborative approach can be adopted to ensure that AI systems are used transparently, accountably, and are well understood at any community or consumer touchpoints, especially around the use of data. The more human and AI partnerships interact and include community representatives the better.

The FIDO Way

At FIDO, we launched our collaborative AI service FIDO Plus with this in mind. Water utilities are traditionally slow to adopt new technologies and lack many of the transformative skills, time, or budget, to adapt entrenched processes to the new AI paradigm. Fortunately, many organisations have the resources and the experience to be able to help. FIDO Plus uses the common goal of replenishing stressed local watersheds to bring them, and others, together in a catalytic community.

FIDO AI’s unique quantifiable ability to assess demand and measure water loss is the technological bond which brings this partnership together. In parts of the world such partnerships are growing to encompass government organisations and community groups as well. Every FIDO Plus partnership will be different

Bringing developers, regulators, businesses and the public together is creating a future where AI and human partnerships not just give businesses a competitive edge but actually secure their licence to operate by equitably enhancing the sustainability, efficiency and reliability of essential services for all. Who knows? Maybe AI will even save the planet.

Victoria Edwards will be speaking at the New Scientist half day conference AI Unleashed: Revolutionising the future of your business at 8 Fenchurch Street, London, on Thursday September 28. Tickets are still available: