In late 2017, a report by the RSA (Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) stated that artificial intelligence (AI) and robots could replace 15 per cent of the UK workforce over the next decade. The report, The Age of Automation: Artificial intelligence, robotics and the future of low-skilled work, triggered a debate throughout 2018 and now not a week passes without an AI headline laced with fear.
AI was cited by the RSA report as being transformational to the number of employees needed in finance, professional services, transportation and many other sectors. The same report found that 13 per cent of employers expect 30 per cent of roles to be automated in the next ten years. And research from the Business Travel Show found that just over half of travel buyers surveyed believed that automation technologies will impact their role within the next three years.
Much of the press coverage of AI has fostered fear, but also gives the impression AI will happen in the near future. However, the truth is, AI is with us in the here and now.
AI is some clever maths that can benefit your business
“The hype leads to misunderstanding and excessive expectations and excessive fear,” says Andrew Burgess, an independent advisor and author of An Executive Guide to AI. Burgess helps organisations develop AI strategies and create a roadmap for AI usage and he describes his role as being, “to make AI boring”.
“AI is some clever maths that can benefit your business,” says Burgess, defining the technology. Just as computers replaced the typing pool, emails the fax, and the mobile the pager, the reality of AI is not the white robot lazily used by many fearmongers, but the next iteration of technology to carry out essential tasks.
“AI covers the whole landscape from chatbots to advanced predictive analytics and machine learning,” Burgess adds, explaining that it is the variety of AI technologies that has fed the hype.
“Data and data-driven applications will be the future,” says Marion Mesnage, head of research, innovation and ventures at Amadeus IT Group. In her view, far from replacing travel buyers, AI is set to enhance their role.
“AI is not something that is new, it is the enablement, in terms of hardware, performance and data, that is changing the game,” Mesnage says.
Sacha Tomey, chief technology officer and director of Adatis, a data analytics specialist, says organisations will benefit from better revenue management as travel buyers gain access to greater insight from data on seasonal travel and price fluctuations as a result of major conferences or sporting events, for example.
“Data-driven technologies will help us and our clients to execute change very quickly,” adds Eric Tyree, chief data scientist at CWT. The Travel Management Company: An agency which manages business travel for a company. has been at the forefront of using data to improve the service it offers its clients and Tyree is forthright about the need for the change in focus. “We are in a very commoditised market and we have to change fast,” he says.
As an industry we have the ability to use buzzwords way before the actual solutions are ready for primetime
Tyree believes that TMCs got themselves into the same difficult situation as the facilities management services sector, competing purely on price. This was one of the factors in the collapse of construction company Carillion and the recent difficulties at Interserve. He believes offering data and technology-led solutions will provide buyers with an improved service.
AI will not only improve the technologies of the suppliers, the business processes used by corporate travel buyers will also improve.
Michael McSperrin, head of global facilities and support services at Alexander Mann Solutions, says the talent and recruitment firm is using a simple chatbot to respond to travel policy inquiries within the business, which has 4,500 staff, 1,500 of whom are regular travellers.
Comment: Eric Tyree, chief data scientist at CWT
“The need for human intervention is reduced; you are getting people to do more interesting tasks,” he says of how his team has reduced the time they spend providing answers to questions about travel policy and process. McSperrin explains that, in essence, chatbots match an answer to a question. With chat already in use for candidates and recruiters, adding it to the corporate travel function was “logical”. “If your business is driven by technology improvement and streamlining, then your travel programme needs to reflect that,” he says.
Amadeus’s Mesnage agrees. “AI is empowering the booker and the end user,” she says. “It is streamlining the operations of customers. We know that travel disruption is extremely destructive for both the traveller and the booker, so being able to optimise and predict disruption is of great value.”
Nuno Castro, Director of Data Science at Expedia Group agrees that AI is streamlining the business travel booking experience. “The algorithms provide the right properties to the right traveller, so it has increased the speed at which you can book.”
Tyree at CWT adds that AI and data tools enable the travel booker to analyse the travel behaviour of their organisation and improve the experience both for the traveller, but also the organisation. CWT advises organisations to integrate data sources. “So we take the travel database of everything you have booked and everything you have paid and then I need to know demographics and then I need to know pay grades,” says Tyree. “I take the HR data and integrate that with the corporate finance system and now I have a 360° view of travel – who is travelling, the business and, more importantly, how the business expenditure correlates to travel.
“Then you can say for every individual and every cost centre, I can correlate your revenue back to travel expenditure and then you can create a KPI.” Tyree adds that data integration also enables organisations to tackle other challenges, such as staff satisfaction and retention.
“The travel industry is a little behind other sectors. That is because travel products do have specifics,” Mesnage says. “You cannot consume travel as much as books or shoes. It is perishable – if you don’t travel it is gone.”
In the past 20 years we have all lived digital lives and the data that has created is the fuel for AI
Although AI may only just be entering the business travel departures area, in other sectors it has already arrived and begun to unpack its bags (see box, p60). Both the legal and health sectors report that AI is helping those sectors automate tasks, such as paralegal research or analysis of MRI scans, which not only reduces the time these tasks take, but more importantly, reduces the error rate. As repetitive tasks, often handed to less well-trained members of staff, both sectors report error rates can be cut by AI.
The hype created by pictures of white robots neatly ignores the fact that AI is necessary due to the sheer amount of data that the travel sector has to deal with.
“In the past 20 years we have all lived digital lives and the data that has been created is the fuel for AI,” Mesnage says. Burgess adds: “With AI you can never have too much data, the challenge is making sense of it all.”
“You have an obligation to ingest customer data and understand it end to end,” says Ian Cohen, group chief information officer at Addison Lee. “It’s not yours anyway, it’s entrusted to you by your customers so how dare you not make the effort to understand its end-to-end value and provenance.”
As Cohen points out, travel buyers must now look past the headlines and figure out how to leverage AI to make the most of the increasing amount of data coming their way.
“Organisations need to ensure that they have good tools operating on good data, otherwise they are just wading in a ‘data swamp’,” he says.