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View from the Street: The new organic

Image: StabilityAI, prompted to generate a portrait of itself.

Tom Gillingham

Tom Gillingham

Partner

There’s clearly something compelling about organic food in an increasingly complex, highly processed world. The promise of simplicity and authenticity commands a premium price point, growing market share and a degree of peace-of-mind.

As the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution gathers pace, is it time for the UK’s dominant – but currently human-dependent – service sector to replicate this organic premium? Before I attempt to answer that, let’s look at the facts.

A report issued by the international monetary fund (IMF) this week suggested that 60% of jobs in advanced economies could be affected by AI, outstripping the 40% figure anticipated to be impacted globally. This doesn’t mean all those jobs will be lost, but it consolidates the consensus view that change is coming, fast.

The sense that these effects are imminent, rather than distant, is confirmed by research from the advisory firm PwC which suggests AI implementation could lead to headcount reductions of at least five per cent this year.

The industries most likely to sustain these job losses include many that the UK has particular strengths in, including media and entertainment, banking, insurance and businesses services.

Despite the hype around AI, there is still a strong case to be made for placing an ‘organic’ premium on human-led services and advice, but it is one that needs to be developed thoughtfully and sooner rather than later.

It took a label, concerted influencing campaigns and enhanced consumer understanding for organic produce to first differentiate itself, then take back and subsequently grow market share in the face of abundant cheaper alternatives.

Something akin to intensive agriculture is just around the corner in digital spaces. Europol predicts that by 2026 as much as 90% of content online could be ‘synthetic’. Under this bleak scenario, the world around us will soon be swamped by mutated deepfakes, chlorinated content and battery farmed bots.

So far, so dystopian. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, not many people noticed the British Standards Institution claiming a world first international standard of how to safely manage AI. Amidst all the doom, serious attempts at a standardised way forward felt deserving of a bit more attention. Given the pace with which change is taking place, ignoring conversations about regulation and parameters risks leaving unanswered the question of how much automation is desirable.

Businesses must think seriously about how, in a rapidly automating world, the humans they employ act to differentiate the quality or prestige of the products and services they supply. I suggest they should be aiming to achieve the kind of cachet that comes with splashing out on a truly handmade piece of clothing or a virtuous trip to that Sunday morning farmers’ market. This is, in equal parts, a strategic, communications and regulatory challenge.

Encouragement can be found in the steady post-pandemic return to offices, as a reminder of the technology defying value of in-person interactions. This value is particularly apparent when it comes to giving impactful advice pertaining to pressurised human engagements, like reputational crises or high-stakes media interviews. If Europol’s predicted synthetic swamp comes to pass, it may conversely put a premium on tangible experiences or interactions. There is opportunity here, if people-focused businesses can effectively articulate the benefits of buying ‘organic’.

Without clear and early labelling, though, there is a risk of waters so muddied that it becomes harder for service companies to strike a credible balance when it comes to automation or retaining the human skills that could set them apart in future.

Hopefully we can all work alongside AI to boost productivity and deliver better results for clients. As it stands, the UK’s globally esteemed service sector – and the many millions of people employed within it – are vulnerable to unintended consequences unless it takes bold steps to define and describe the value in its humanity.

Image: StabilityAI, prompted to generate a portrait of itself