The buzz around generative AI throughout 2023 has been a double-edged sword. Its instant accessibility to so many people through free platforms has opened their minds to the power of AI, but generative AI based on powerful large language models (LLMs) is just one field of AI. There are many more that collectively offer huge potential to change how customers and citizens experience digital services. 

AI is no silver bullet but has a meaningful role to play in tackling our stubbornly low productivity, which sees us working longer and producing less than most other countries in the OECD. 

Our new Prime Minister Christopher Luxon said repeatedly on the election campaign trail that he aspires for New Zealand to have comparable economic performance to other small, advanced nations such as Ireland, Singapore and Denmark. Those countries have been quick to adopt emerging technologies and use them to innovate, which is positively reflected in their economic performance.   

The opportunity in front of Aotearoa as we head into 2024 with a new government is to do the same, accelerating our uptake of technologies like AI across government and the private sector, safely and responsibly.

The barriers to AI uptake

In attempting to do doing so we face some headwinds. Datacom’s recent survey of 200 business leaders found that just 48% are using AI in their organisation. It’s likely the actual percentage of businesses using AI is significantly higher – they just don’t know it. AI has for a long time been infused into a wide range of platforms and software packages that power businesses, but its role isn’t always obvious.  

Still, there’s clearly a gap in capability and readiness when it comes to AI, with only 40% of business leaders feeling well placed to take advantage of it and 60% of our respondents saying they don’t feel educated on the risks of AI around security. Australia’s adoption of AI, by comparison, is significantly higher. 

We need to tackle these knowledge and capability gaps that are preventing our organisations from adopting AI. The Government, in partnership with industry, has a role to play in doing so. A national AI strategy, which was listed as a priority in the Digital Strategy for Aotearoa, would help set the agenda. 

Photograph of Justin Gray, Datacom New Zealand's MD Technology Services.
Datacom New Zealand's MD Technology Services, Justin Gray: "We believe AI can play a role in ensuring the most vulnerable in society get better access to government services when they most need them."

The Government can also lead by example in how it uses AI to improve delivery of government services to citizens. The debate about AI in the public sector very quickly centres on potentially problematic use cases where AI is used to determine eligibility to access government support. 

We believe AI can play a role in ensuring the most vulnerable in society get better access to government services when they most need them. But there are many other opportunities to leverage AI to offer a better, personalised online experience for citizens and to determine the efficacy of policy decisions so that taxpayers get the best bang for buck.

Responsible AI starts with strategy

Our public agencies have made reasonable progress piloting and deploying AI systems, with the voluntary Algorithm Charter guiding their usage. However, 82% of respondents to our survey felt that specific legislation relating to the use of AI within government is needed. That could give the public greater confidence for AI to be used in areas where it can have a truly transformative impact for citizens. 

In the private sector, many useful frameworks and guidelines for responsible use of AI have emerged with risk assessments relevant to the intended use case of AI central to all of them. But making good use of them starts with building your strategy and capability around AI and putting in place the governance to oversee responsible use of it. 

It also requires every organisation using AI to get their data in order. The real power of this technology is realised in applying it to the rich sources of data that underpin your business. But much of that data currently sits in silos or is unsuitable for applying algorithms or machine learning to. 

We have a long way to go on that front. With AI, we are in a similar place to where we were five years ago with cybersecurity. Back then, it was considered by business leaders to simply be a back-office IT function. Now it is a priority at board level, treated as seriously as health and safety in many organisations.

Skills for a modern workforce

AI will be similarly prioritised. But given the pace of change, we’ll need to get a move on. Adoption of AI will have implications for the workforce, with automation replacing some roles. Past evidence, with the introduction of waves of new technology, shows us that the workforce can adapt. New, higher-value jobs are created as the mundane roles disappear.  

But we currently have a disconnect in our education system between the skills that are being taught and what we need from our workforce. We require greater upskilling and reskilling of workers to embrace technologies like AI. That doesn’t necessarily mean more computer science graduates.  

With microcredential and digital apprenticeship schemes, we can rapidly develop a tech-savvy workforce, and draw on a wider range of skills to ensure we are designing and building human-centred products and services. 

Our survey revealed that 80% of leaders are keen to either learn more about AI or to get going with laying the groundwork for its deployment. It’s critical that technology partners and government work together to harness this momentum and support the adoption of AI technologies that can deliver real productivity gains for business and for New Zealand as a whole.

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