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Artificial intelligence ‘should not be feared’, say supply chain specialists

Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence may be the new bad-boy on the block but the technology is vital in securing vulnerable supply chains. While researchers and business rivals express headline-grabbing opinions about the threat from artificial intelligence (AI) the technology is increasingly being used to secure supply chains that are vital for economic prosperity.

“Supply chains are complex and involve systems that you need every second of every day and if they should fail you could lose millions in revenue,” explains Sean Elliott, chief technology officer at Körber Business Area Supply Chain. “Security, stability and continuity is essential and AI, with its ability to analyse large volumes of data at the same time, can really help deliver stability and security.

“There can be millions of data points in a supply chain and it is vital to maintain uptime of the various infrastructure systems. AI can be used to gain real-time oversight to aid decision-making for optimisation, planning and quality control to ensure seamless supply chain operations.”

Fear is driving the AI debate

While artificial intelligence continues to empower supply chains that fuel global business and industry, fears over the use of AI have led US researchers to claim that the technology will cause a nuclear-level catastrophe within this century.

In the Stanford 2023 Artificial Intelligence Index Report more than a third of respondents agreed that: ‘It is possible that decisions made by AI or machine learning systems could cause a catastrophe this century that is a least as bad as an all-out nuclear war.’ Meanwhile, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman wrote in a company blog post: “The risks could be extraordinary. A misaligned super-intelligent AGI could cause grievous harm to the world.” Geoffrey Hinton, considered the ‘godfather of artificial intelligence,’ told America’s CBS News that the chances of the technology ‘wiping out humanity’, are “not inconceivable.”

Artificial intelligence is a catch-all term that covers a wide range of applications across business, commerce and industry and whilst the threats from its potential mis-use are real this should not prevent the benefits of the technology from being exploited, experts say. Despite current concerns, only 41 per cent of researchers polled in the recent report thought that AI should be regulated.

Overcoming AI misunderstanding

Many of the current concerns around AI voiced by mainstream media are founded on a misunderstanding of the technology with algorithms portrayed as the ‘bad-boy’ of Big Tech. However, across industry AI applications are being designed for vital practical use rather than for Bond-villain purposes.

“AI is not a single off-the-shelf solution; it draws upon a range of different kinds of algorithms to deliver multiple operational functions,” Elliot explains. “An optimisation algorithm is very different from forecasting algorithm. For optimisation, AI can monitor millions of data points to detect anomalies and to ensure quality control levels. With forecasting, you can classify and monitor a range of events to predict potential supply issues or operational bottlenecks.

“There is a lot of fuss and misunderstanding around AI with many believing you can simply use it once and that’s the solution. But that’s not the case for supply chains where AI needs to run continuously because customers rely on your software systems to operate on very high availability. If something goes wrong you want to know exactly where it went wrong, and why it went wrong. With AI integrated with your core infrastructure you can secure the software that is running the supply chain, leverage the data you get from your various systems and be very proactive in responding to incidents that might happen.”

While media headlines claim that AI decision-making is a threat to humanity, the ability to remove human fallibility from the process is essential in managing complex supply chains, Elliot believes. “In supply chain, you have to make millions of decisions every day; you’re shipping raw materials, parts, or thousands of products to multiple locations and there are decisions to be made at every point in the chain. It is not possible to gather all this information and make all these decisions using human means so either you make them on an aggregate level or you don’t make a decision or you just repeat the decision you made yesterday. In monitoring and analysing vast quantities of data in the chain AI can enable and support much better decision-making because you’re basing your decisions on the verifiable certainty that AI technology can deliver.”

AI technology is rapidly maturing

There is no doubt that, in some areas, artificial intelligence exists in the Wild West of technology and market evolution with governments and regulators racing to catch up with fast-changing developments. However, the responsible use of AI is rapidly maturing in industries that rely on a supply chain.

“We are in the maturity curve as an industry but more education is needed,” Elliot says. “AI offers an incredible range of opportunities and can solve a lot of business problems that we historically either haven’t experienced or haven’t previously had the technology to solve. AI data science and machine learning offers huge potential in the security and efficiency of supply chains, the biggest strength being that once integrated it operates without much human intervention to save costs, provide certainty, enable better decision-making and remove human errors.”

AI has been shown to deliver key benefits across industry however, like any powerful new technology care must be taken when considering the use of AI, Elliot advises. “Artificial intelligence solutions will be at the heart of supply chains in future but algorithms are complex so you have to be careful and really evaluate why, where and how you want to apply an AI solution.”

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