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Human or Artificial Intelligence?

How best to blend humans and artificial intelligence (AI) is a recurrent theme of the first series of Altair’s Future Says interviews. When Errol Koolmeister, senior tech advisor at the AI Framework and former head of AI engineering for fashion retailer H&M, spoke to host Sean Lang, he defined the formula for success with AI as 70% change management, 20% technology, and 10% algorithms. For Koolmeister and his team, AI is very much about complementing the workforce, not replacing it. That’s why he highlights H&M’s commitment to amplified intelligence, an approach that combines the best of human input and machine learning, science and art, data and gut feeling.

The 2020 MIT Sloan Management Review confirms that Koolmeister and H&M are on the right track. This study from Boston Consulting Group found that just 10% of organizations are achieving significant financial benefits with AI. However, companies drawing on multiple types of interaction and feedback between humans and AI are six times more likely to amplify their success with this technology.

By emphasizing the need to secure company-wide support for AI, Koolmeister is singing from the same hymn sheet as the three Future Says guests who preceded him. Drawn from the very different worlds of banking, manufacturing, telecom, and retail, all these interviewees share much in the way of common ground. 

For example, echoing Girish Agarwal in this episode, Koolmeister is adamant that this is no longer the stuff of PowerPoint presentations. The emphasis is on putting AI and data analytics to work and delivering value. Use cases at H&M already include demand and trend forecasting, stock balancing, and pricing. But the ambition is obvious. The fashion retailer is looking to go horizontal in terms of deploying AI and amplifying (there’s that word again) all of the company’s operational capabilities.

The shared themes do not stop there. Koolmeister’s bold vision is firmly rooted in down-to-earth realism. Securing incremental gains is the best way of winning hearts and minds. According to Koolmeister, attempts to “boil the ocean” are a common pitfall. Another is the attitude that “if we build it, they will come.” He is clear: they won’t. Remember that formula for success: 70% comprises change management. Securing buy-in requires a proactive attitude.

For the moment at least, Koolmeister believes that humans need to be kept in the decision-making loop. Automation is a desirable goal, but any consideration of leaving decision-making to AI should only be done in the context of rigorous ethical frameworks that ensure there is no danger of issues such as algorithm bias arising.

By the same token, Koolmeister sees the potential for AI to deliver commercial and societal benefits simultaneously. For example, by cutting waste, improved demand forecasting and resource management have a pay-off for both the company’s financial performance and broader sustainability goals. 

Koolmeister’s assertion that AI can square the circle of commercial advantage and the wider good is a reassuring message. What’s more, given a media narrative that often seeks to pit man against machine, so is his persuasive argument that getting the best from AI will demand a healthy and harmonious relationship between the two. 

Click here to watch the full interview with Errol on demand, catch up with all five episodes of season one, and sign up to be notified of season two Future Says episode updates.