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A Prescription for Change using AI: A dialogue with Arun Nandi

Today, AI represents a leap of faith into the unknown, driven by ongoing research and technological advancements.

Alan Turing’s prediction about machines thinking without dispute has come true as artificial intelligence (AI) has advanced over the years. From the emergence of AI in the 1950s to the evolution of machine learning and deep learning, the field continues to expand with new possibilities and applications. Today, AI represents a leap of faith into the unknown, driven by ongoing research and technological advancements.

In this week’s CDO insight series, we had with us the Senior Director & Head of Data & Analytics at Unilever, Arun Nandi. As the Senior Director and Advisor for many institutions he has played a pivotal role in empowering and guiding technical and business teams to achieve success. With his expertise, they shape product roadmaps, drive innovation, and foster collaboration to advance the realm of data-centric solutions. In this interview he gave us his perspective on how the landscape of AI has transformed over the years and what he envisions the future is going to look like. He talks about how AI is reshaping roles across industries, some valuable advice for beginners curious about AI, and the key lessons he learnt along his remarkable path. 

AIM Research (AIM): As we talk about change using AI, when you think back on your own experience, what made you realise that using AI as an enabler may significantly increase business value by altering the way we behave, think, and work? How has this realisation changed the way you go about bringing about change?

Arun Nandi (AN): The growth of AI has been an evolution. While the term AI itself is far more ubiquitous now than it was a year ago, we have been delving into AI for many years in businesses. My appreciation for AI’s potential to radically transform our business has been growing over time.

I have always had the creation of value at the forefront of all my endeavors. With that as a given, the next step is about how we can create that value through increasing levels of sophistication with the use of data, whether through data-driven decisions, AI or other forms of democratization and analytics. By embracing AI as a tool for value creation, I have been proactively seeking ways to integrate it into various aspects of business operations. 

AIM: As the Senior Director & Head of Data & Analytics, how has your role transformed in prescribing and harnessing the power of AI as a catalyst for driving change and enabling organizational transformation?

AN: As an AI and Data & Analytics practitioner, I have adopted a forward-thinking approach that balances the present and the future. One has to be adept at the art of building the plane while flying it. 

Everything we have done in the past is driven by people. I think we can all agree that everything we do in the future is going to be driven by AI. However, this journey from the present state to an AI-driven future requires careful navigation, which is where my role comes in.

I would emphasize what I refer to as the “inverted pyramid of AI investment.” This principle suggests allocating 10% of resources to models and algorithms, 20% to technology and tooling, and the remaining 70% to driving change with people and processes. This highlights the significance of investing in people’s skills and organizational processes to successfully embrace and implement AI solutions.

By cultivating the importance of change management and fostering a culture that embraces AI, I have driven the adoption and integration of AI across the organization. This approach enables me to harness the power of AI as a catalyst for driving change, enabling organizational transformation, and unlocking new levels of value and efficiency.

AIM: As an expert in the Analytics space, what has been the most transformative aspect of AI that has significantly reshaped our lives and will continue to shape our future in profound ways?

AN: With the recent hype cycle around foundation models, productivity gains through AI-driven assistants and copilots have garnered attention, they represent only a fraction of the transformative power of AI. The true impact lies in the innovative ways AI will completely redefine how we live and operate.

One significant area where AI holds immense promise is in drug discovery and development. The current process in this industry is time-consuming and capital-intensive. However, AI has the potential to revolutionize the field by streamlining research, identifying patterns, and accelerating the discovery of new drugs and treatments. And we don’t yet know how this impacts the longevity of a human life!

Another area I’m personally excited about is leveraging AI to advance our sustainability goals. AI can play a pivotal role in reversing the effects of climate change and deforestation by enabling us to analyze vast amounts of environmental data, identify patterns and trends, and develop intelligent solutions for conservation and sustainable practices.

It’s worth acknowledging that while AI presents incredible opportunities, there are also potential risks and ethical considerations, as depicted in dystopic portrayals like the Netflix show Black Mirror. However, the constructive potential of AI outweighs the negatives, and it is essential to address ethical concerns while leveraging its transformative power for the betterment of society.

AIM: You have been part of many advisory boards. What guidance would you offer to beginners who are just starting their path of utilising AI as a tool for generating value for their organisations? Which fundamental tactics or methods should they emphasise on, according to your experiences?

AN: 1- Focus on high-value areas: Identify the areas within your organization where AI can deliver the most significant value in the shortest amount of time. This requires careful consideration of factors such as customer needs, operational inefficiencies, or market trends. By prioritizing these high-value areas, you can ensure that your AI initiatives have a tangible impact on the organization’s success.

2- Tailor your approach to the organization’s stage: Recognize that different organizations are at different stages of AI adoption. For mature organizations, focus on leveraging AI to optimize existing processes or address specific pain points. For early-stage companies, prioritize using AI to strengthen revenue streams, enhance sales strategies, and accelerate insights. Tailor your tactics and methods to the organization’s specific needs and goals, considering their current stage of AI maturity.

3- Fail Fast, Scale Fast: The impact of AI can be exponentially increased through rapid prototyping and iteration. It is crucial to identify the right moments to pivot or conclude a project and when to scale proof-of-concept successes

While these serve as guiding principles, it’s important to approach each organization and situation with curiosity, adaptability, humility, and a willingness to learn and iterate.

I thoroughly enjoy working with organizations of various shapes and sizes who are in different stages of AI maturity. I take up opportunities where my knowledge and experience can align with the vision of an organization and where I can roll up my sleeves and get to work to actively shape the organization’s roadmap.

AIM: Five years from now, what are some AI projects or initiatives that you are eagerly anticipating as catalysts for bringing change, and aligns with the concept of prescribing AI for driving impactful change?

AN: If only I had a crystal ball! Last year, around this time, if you had told anybody if we would be witnessing a bull-market in the US driven by 9 technology companies which started with a frenzy from large language models, people would not have believed you.

What I do anticipate is that we will continue to augment our human intelligence with AI to better business outcomes. If you look at many areas of our work, we are still operating within frameworks and design principles rooted in the industrial revolution. However, I envision a world where these traditional models will be challenged, gradually but consistently, as we chip away at our biases and embrace transformative change.

An example I like is from NASA where we are starting to see AI-driven designs, which are powering machines built by AI to produce an industrial part. In essence, the end-to-end design, build and deployment of the entire process is AI-powered.  This approach challenges our conventional notions of what designs should look like. The parts produced through AI-driven design may appear alien-like (one of the NASA engineers commented on this which made it to a New York Times headline) compared to our familiar designs shaped by scientific evolution. We have been designing things that look and feel a certain way, based on years of scientific evolution. But what we are going to see going forward is going to completely blow our minds.

Ultimately, these anticipated AI initiatives will not only bring about change but also empower organizations to tackle complex challenges, discover new opportunities, and drive meaningful impact in various sectors.

AIM: Looking back on your remarkable journey in the field of AI, if there was one pivotal lesson that has profoundly shaped your professional growth and contributed to your current success, what would it be?

AN: I have a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo, and that coupled with a curiosity and the desire to solve problems has been my mantra. My purpose is to learn everyday. Not everything one learns is going to change the game, but if you stand still, you are only moving backwards.

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