Belfast Telegraph

AI need not spell disaster for Northern Ireland workers: future-proofing expert


Technology talk: Leo Johnson
Technology talk: Leo Johnson
Ryan McAleer

By Ryan McAleer

The introduction of artificial intelligence in the workplace need not spell disaster for Northern Ireland, a younger brother of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said.

Leo Johnson, now the head of PwC's disruption practice, was speaking as he prepares to address the tech and business sector at the Digital DNA conference in Belfast this month.

A former World Bank employee, he currently moonlights as a BBC Radio 4 presenter for the 'FutureProofing' series.

In both his PwC and radio roles, Leo keeps a firm eye on the cutting edge technologies that could potentially revolutionise businesses and society over the coming years.

"With one side of the brain I'm scanning the weirdest stuff and then with the PwC side I'm grinding it down to try and define the timelines.

"We're always looking for the signals of change, the rates of information."

Leo will be in Belfast from June 19-20, where he will be among the 150 speakers at Digital DNA.

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Around 3,000 delegates are expected to attend the conference.When it comes to tech, the PwC partner is impressed by the talent pool here.

"If you have a hub, a place where there's creativity, then stuff is going to happen," he said.

While he might offer advice to companies on the difference between the hype and the real risks, unlike his Brexiteer older brother Boris or his father Stanley, Leo doesn't like to talk about Brexit.

"I love not talking about Brexit," he said in response to a question about future-proofing for Northern Ireland businesses.

Instead, he drew attention to the potential impact of the likes of artificial intelligence and automation on the manufacturing sector.

"I think it could absolutely go two ways. There's a quote from Marilyn Monroe, that sometimes good things fall apart so that better things can fall into place."

But Leo admitted AI "could make it worse for people in the workplace".

Acknowledging an oft-cited 2013 Oxford study, which estimated that 47% of US jobs were at risk of being automated over the following two decades, he said: "If AI detonates jobs, detonates the amount of income people have in their pockets to spend, then there are all sorts of businesses that are vulnerable."

But it needn't all spell doom and gloom. Leo said: "If we make the tool the servant, not the master, then use this stuff to solve the problems that are out there: water, climate, housing, sanitation and education.

"Tap into the giant pool of creative people doing amazing stuff, then I think we get back to Marilyn, of getting something way better." So what new technologies should curious investors be turning their attention to over the next few years?

Quantum computing is high on Leo's list. "D-Wave claims already to have a quantum computer that's 100 million times faster, according to Google analysis, than the fastest conventional super-computer. What is that going to do to AI's capabilities?" he said. However, he suggested that the biggest changes will be relating to transport. "I think there is going to be a revolution in transport. Some of it is already happening. They're trying to get a hyperloop between Abu Dhabi and Dubai by 2020, running around 12 minutes between the two."

Digital DNA will takes place from June 19-20 at St George's Market in Belfast.

Belfast Telegraph