Are we approaching AI in the City thoughtfully?

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AI promises so much to The City and the UK – new jobs, new opportunities, new growth - all things we need and want to encourage, but we need to remember that in amongst it all, we are still human.

"Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin." Some might remember the immortal lines of Daphne Oxenford on Listen to Mother, inviting the under-fives to sit calmly and listen to the story of the day.

Quiet focus is an essential part of our existence - it's part of our cognitive development, our ability to focus, and our mental wellbeing. However, it’s not something we get a lot of in the modern world. The academic evidence is that we get an ever-decreasing amount of uninterrupted concentration time thanks to all the emails, notifications and general volume of information around us, and the result is that we are also less capable of focusing.

Not enough time to think

In his best-selling book, Stolen Focus, Why You Can't Pay Attention, Johann Hari writes that most of us don’t get a full hour to ourselves without being interrupted in the working day. He notes: "This is happening at every level of business - the average CEO of a Fortune 500 company, for example, gets just 28 uninterrupted minutes a day."

It perhaps says something that I thought 28 minutes seemed like rather a lot of uninterrupted time. Hari continues to explore our collective reduction in concentration in his text, one element of which is linked to sheer overload. There's so much information going in from so many different angles, but despite the world's increased connectivity he notes that the human brain has not changed significantly in 40,000 years. The brain can only focus so much, so the more our attention is divided, the less we can concentrate on any one thing.

The belief is that this cumulative overload can result in everything from mental health problems to a lack of productivity and a lack of creativity because there simply isn’t space for it.

The dawn of a new era

That aspect of the modern human experience is interesting to consider alongside the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), which, while already present in our home and working lives, is on the precipice of something much bigger.

London has set out to be a frontrunner in this space. Rishi Sunak only recently told technology leaders that he wanted Britain to be the dominant home of artificial intelligence, determined the UK will be “the best place in the world to start, grow and invest in tech businesses.” He has also urged caution, saying: “…I want to make the UK not just the intellectual home, but the geographical home of global AI safety regulation.”

Together these things beg us to take a moment, collectively and individually to consider the benefits and drawbacks of AI to make sure we’re using it thoughtfully and with intent.

The benefits of AI in the City of London

AI is an exciting space, particularly in The City. It promises a range of enormous benefits, from minimising errors to streamlining processes, saving time and freeing up individuals to focus on more interesting tasks that involve higher-level executive function rather than repetition.

A report this year named London a global leader in AI, and UCL wrote: "The report, which ranked cities based on metrics such as total AI venture capital investment, the number of AI initiatives, and career and education opportunities, placed London at the top of the list, ahead of other major cities such as New York and Singapore."

There are lots of benefits to the inclusion of AI in financial services and other industries across the board - some more obvious than others. PwC predicts: "UK GDP will be up to 10.3% higher in 2030 as a result of AI – the equivalent of an additional £232bn – making it one of the biggest commercial opportunities in today's fast-changing economy."

That alone is an incentive for both businesses and the British economy to welcome AI with open arms.

What’s the ‘cost’ of AI?

As with most things, as well as benefits there are, not necessarily disadvantages to AI, but things that need thinking about in a calm moment of reflection. AI will inevitably add to, amend and change the way we live and work, possibly making it even more fast paced, and with those changes there comes a ‘cost’. The question, and possibly an unanswerable one at this point, is what is it?

It might be easiest to look at this in terms of the economic impact. A report by the Mental Health Foundation and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), said: "mental health problems cost the UK economy at least £117.9 billion annually." That's the equivalent to around 5% of the UK’s GDP, and it was mostly linked to lost productivity.

A report from the Mayor of London's office wrote: "Mental ill health hampers London businesses each year by limiting employee productivity and reducing the potential workforce. £920 million alone is lost annually to sickness absences in the city, and a further £1.9 billion is lost to reduced productivity. The costs extend more widely, though, to amount to a staggering sum total of £10.4 billion lost each year to London business and industry."

As far as I can understand, the most common mental health problem amongst adults of working age in London (although many are believed to go unreported), are anxiety and depression. Equally, my belief, through a combination of research and anecdotal evidence is that information overload is a known cause of anxiety, feeling overwhelmed and mental fatigue.

Psychology Today writes: "It can also lead to cognitive issues such as difficulty making decisions or making hasty (often bad) decisions."

Managing our approach for the best outcomes

It's difficult to gauge changes that AI will bring, but I think we must consider the long wave pattern in terms of its impact and how it works out.

Do not misunderstand my thinking - I believe AI is a very exciting space for the UK. However, as with all wonderful things, it's the intention and purpose that has a profound effect on the outcome. We need to be conscious about what we're trying to achieve (and what we want to avoid), as we pursue this sophisticated form of technology. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace it, but we should be cognisant of what the goal is, and importantly, consider the less tangible human impact so we can manage it best.

AI promises so much to The City and the UK – new jobs, new opportunities, new growth - all things we need and want to encourage. We just need to remember that in amongst it all, we are human.

Image: The image I have chosen to include here is of Antony Gormley’s Resolution, which sits on Shoe Lane. The artist has reportedly said: "Seen from afar it looks like a man, from close up it looks like a city. It is wonderful to be able to site a work that interacts with the daily life of the street" - which seemed apt for this topic.