Artificial Intelligence can tell what you're buying next
Stefan Hickmott, Ali Kassab, Zaid Al Qufaidi and Henrik Von Scheel talk about the impact of new technology on the workforce during the 'Man vs Machine' panel discussion on the second day of the fourth Sharjah FDI Forum on Tuesday. - Photo by M. Sajjad
Sharjah - AI can also help retailers in their inventory management systems and in streamlining their logistics.
What if the next time you drop by the café at your go-to petrol station, your favourite coffee - labelled with your name - is already waiting for you?
Certainly, one can always place an order in advance via an app or by making a phone call. But this one is different, as artificial intelligence (AI) or, particularly, predictive technology is being employed by retailers to forecast consumer behaviour and needs.
Speaking to Khaleej Times on the sidelines of the fourth Sharjah FDI Forum, Zaid Al Qufaidi, managing director of retail at Emirates National Oil Company (Enoc), said retailers are moving away from basic statistics and are now using AI to analyse data derived from customers and detect the underlying patterns in their shopping behaviour - from the usual products they buy, the frequency, up to the way they buy them.
He said: "Our retail strategy has shifted digital. For example, we are introducing smart petrol stations where we gather consumer information through our smart digital cameras. We can recognise the vehicle plates, Salik point of contact, and even the smartphone that was used to pay for the purchases. We also have a vehicle identification pass (VIP), and all the information that we gather, we put them in one basket - what we call as big data. Then, we analyse how customers buy fuel or what they get from our convenience store."
"We have now become more proactive. We will know what consumers want to purchase and we can predict when they will buy it. We can also offer more services and advice to our customers; for example, when they should change their tyres or car battery," Al Qufaidi said.
"We should understand that the customers of today and their needs are different tomorrow, so we need to understand consumer behaviour."
With all the data mining the firm does, Al Qufaidi said they are also cautious when it comes to consumer privacy and security. "We are strictly working with government regulators so as not to compromise privacy and security," he said.
"What we are doing is that we are just enhancing our services."
AI can also help retailers in their inventory management systems and in streamlining their logistics.
Al Qufaidi said AI will soon be widely used in the retail industry, and the labour market should be able to adapt to the disruptive trend.
This means we may not see robots replacing human gas attendants, but more self-service petrol pumps will be introduced, resulting in job cuts.
"However, humans will be behind the desks analysing the trend and consumer behaviour," Al Qufaidi said. The important thing is that skills in the labour force are aligned with the new technology, he added.
'Robotics, new tech are not killing jobs'
Discussing the topic 'Man vs Machine', panellists at the fourth Sharjah FDI Forum said public and private institutions should be able to fill the gap created by new technology that resulted in dwindling jobs.
"Robotics and AI (artificial intelligence) aren't killing jobs. In fact, they are optimising businesses to function better. Businesses will have to make decisions to keep costs down but will not compromise on good customer service that is provided by humans," said Ali Kassab, CEO of Centurion Co.
"For the economy and businesses to grow, proper training will have to be provided for the workforce to build on the necessary skill set. Entities will need to focus on where their resources come from - whether natural or otherwise. Environmental footprint as well as social aspects will need to be considered to create a sustainable model," added Henrik Von Scheel, originator of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0).
Zaid Al Qufaidi, managing director of retail at Emirates National Oil Company, said: "In the energy sector, usage of AI isn't a competition between man and machine. It's a better option for human safety and work-flow optimisation. The whole industry is driven by data and AI's presence is a mandate especially if you consider the working environment in oil drilling. From gauging pressure to ensuring safety, AI is a safer option."
The panellists said there should be a balance and synergy between man and machine.
Stefan Hickmott, founder and CEO of Evarei and Evareuim Invesmment Fund, said: "There is always the human element required in our business. The question is, who creates the AI or algorithm that we use? Is it human or machine? Certain jobs like customer service will always require the human touch, but in trading, using an algorithm will definitely help you make better decisions."
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Keeping an eye on AI
How far can we push the boundaries on AI? But before we do, it is important to develop a rule-based model for the system to operate in. This calls for regulation as we don't want the technology to fall into the hands of those inimical to our interests. Imagine AI tech being used by criminals and on the Dark Web to track and destroy our lives and systems. Job losses are also a concern but there are opportunities for humans, too. That's why we need to keep track of how AI is used while not taking our mind off the tech reality before us.