Don’t be afraid to take chances on AI says PwC partner Darren O’Neill

25 Jul 2019

Darren O’Neill. Image: Luke Maxwell/Silicon Republic

Irish CEOs agree that AI is a game-changing technology but are evidently slow to integrate it. PwC’s Darren O’Neill offers his advice on how to get started, and why it will be essential to compete in business.

According to PwC’s latest survey, 64pc of Irish CEOs believe that AI will significantly change how they do business in the future. Yet 51pc have no current plans to pursue AI initiatives. Why the disconnect?

PwC partner Darren O’Neill believes a certain amount of bravery is required to start experimenting with AI. “There’s an element of taking some risks and not being afraid to take some chances, to spend a little bit of money on this stuff in a controlled way,” he said.

“It won’t always work out. Be open to the fact that some of it is going to fail. But just get your sleeves rolled up and get stuck in.”

Know your data

O’Neill heads up data and analytics in PwC’s consulting practice, and is experienced in leading the design and implementation of complex business transformation and analytics programmes for clients across sectors.

When asked what’s behind the inaction on AI from Irish business leaders, when the majority see it as a game-changing technology, he said a lack of understanding of the applicability of AI is one factor. Another big issue, he said, is the quality, availability and classification of data.

“I think that’s a massive issue and you will hear that ad nauseam from anyone you speak to in terms of AI and the maturity of same,” said O’Neill.

When it comes to data, a building block of AI, organisations need to know where it is stored, how is it labelled and organised, and how they can access it. “You have to address that in order to leverage these technologies,” said O’Neill.

Time to catch up

O’Neill’s advice to companies embracing AI follows the six priorities PwC outlined in its recent AI report: understanding the technology, developing an AI strategy, identifying datasets to solve specific problems, building an AI-ready workforce, making AI trustworthy and combining AI with other technologies such as the internet of things.

While adapting to new technology poses its own risks, O’Neill highlighted the risk that Irish businesses could fall behind powerful global competitors if they don’t get to grips with it.

“The Chinese government have committed to building an AI sector worth about $150bn by 2030. There’s massive government and private resources going into these areas and we’ll never be able to compete with that. And, obviously, there’s policy that drives that. There’s investment in education, there’s investment in innovation funds,” he said.

However, Ireland is making progress along these lines, according to O’Neill. “We’re taking the right steps,” he said, citing the launch of master’s courses in AI in both University of Limerick and NUI Galway, and the Government’s growing Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund.

“Have we fallen so far behind that we’re at a dramatic disadvantage? No, I don’t think so. I think this is still an emerging technology, and there’s still plenty of time to catch up.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.