Nearly 700 years ago, Europe’s first mechanized printing press was created, helping to democratize access to knowledge and, in the process, transform society and shape the modern world. Fast forward to today, we’re at the precipice of mainstream adoption of another invention with similarly far-reaching consequences for how we live and work—artificial intelligence (AI).
Microsoft founder Bill Gates recently described the recent advances in generative AI as the most revolutionary technology he has seen in decades—as revolutionary as computers, mobile phones, and even the internet. “Entire industries will reorient around it,” he explained. Tellingly, he added: “Businesses will distinguish themselves by how well they use it.”
AI offers a wealth of opportunities for us to rethink how we do our work and engage with the people, helping us to completely reshape the future of businesses. And, given Gates’ prediction, their clients will be just as impacted.
One of AI’s most significant benefits is its capacity to transform how we access, gather, manage, and store information. Already, companies are making use of AI tools for analyzing lengthy documents. These tools help teams efficiently analyze and interpret large volumes of information—critical for delivering high standards of client service in our increasingly data-centric world. EY teams are already processing more than 2 million documents using optical character recognition technology every year.
Yet, high-speed document analysis is just the starting point for AI-supported knowledge management. AI can also flag errors and anomalies, monitor suspicious activities (for example, people accessing files that they shouldn’t), and record and transcribe meetings. As ChatGPT has already proved, AI tools can also be extremely useful for brainstorming and conducting research. Going forward, the speed of AI development, adoption, and maturity will inevitably benefit from cloud migration across many industries, which is accelerating and will help AI access ever-growing data sets.
Despite its vast potential, today’s AI is far from perfect. The risks associated with the technology include bias, inaccuracy, misinformation, and unreliability, as well as susceptibility to cybercrime and issues related to intellectual property. On top of that, AI presents cultural challenges since people who are afraid of losing their jobs to machines may be reluctant to use AI systems or deploy them in unethical ways. Arguably, AI is the most powerful technology humans have ever had at their disposal, so we must develop robust ethical frameworks to help ensure it is used in ways that benefit society.
At EY, we are acutely conscious of the ethical risks involved with AI and the fact it could perpetuate existing societal biases. As a result, our teams carefully consider the ethical and responsible use of AI and the tactical benefits when implementing AI into technology systems and processes, including recruitment processes, and when making recommendations to clients. This includes monitoring the performance of systems to help ensure that they are working reliably and providing feedback to the AI model to help provide an even more precise answer.
Fundamentally, AI helps companies pursue entirely new markets and completely reimagine their business models. In the near term, I expect professionals to be able to tap the vast banks of knowledge that exist both inside and beyond their own organizations by asking a simple question of an AI-powered bot. But if we are to fully realize the potential of AI as a transmitter of knowledge, companies will need to codify, digitize, and structure the knowledge they create so that AI models can easily access it and share it between teams. Professionals will also need training to understand how they can best prompt AI with instructions that will allow them to get the answers they need and, going a step further, modify the output to receive an even more precise answer next time.
AI can also help companies differentiate themselves from their competitors by providing a more effective and efficient service and acting as a catalyst for organizations to develop new AI-based products and services. Imagine an AI-powered hotline offering up-to-date advice on interpreting the latest International Sustainability Reporting Standard, for example. Or a subscription for a new software tool that allows clients to create a draft annual report at the touch of a button.
Another area where AI will likely have a significant impact is talent attraction and retention. AI’s ability to translate multiple languages will help organizations to source talent from currently overlooked pools. It can be used to target candidates with tailored advertisements for job postings and to identify the most promising individuals, using processes that avoid the biases of human recruiters. Additionally, AI can be the basis for personalized learning systems, which are tailored toward an individual’s personal preferences, historic performance, and level of engagement.
To get the best results from AI, responsible experimentation is key. Every AI tool will have strengths and weaknesses, depending on the training data used. In addition, generative AI should not be used for any purpose that relies on 100% accuracy. Right now, brainstorming pursuits to support creative thinking are its greatest strength. Human review is essential if generative AI is relied on to produce factual information.
It’s also worth noting that while an AI tool may not currently be good at a particular task, it could be highly proficient at that same task in two to three months. Due to the rapid improvement of AI models, their capabilities should be regularly reassessed.
Human intelligence is core to so many companies – in fact, it’s common for leaders to tout that people are our business. That is not going to change, regardless of how sophisticated AI becomes. Companies of the future will not be staffed by a workforce of “robo-advisers.” Still, we can expect many to evolve into industries where human intelligence is augmented by artificial intelligence, where human advisers are increasingly supported by AI “co-pilots.” These co-pilots will help teams work more effectively and productively and deliver even more personalized service to deliver better outcomes for clients in a timelier way.
It’s hard to assess the full impact of an innovation when it’s still in its infancy. At the time the printing press was invented, for example, few people – if any – would have predicted that it would ultimately help to fuel the Protestant Reformation, the scientific revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the French Revolution. Today, the AI revolution has only just begun, yet there are already suggestions that it will be the biggest change to impact the world in 700 years. Like the invention of the printing press, history is about to be made.
Andy Baldwin is the EY global managing partner–client service.
The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.