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An AI Conversation with Mian Ahmad

1st Principles, Boardroom Hype, and Sound Advice.

An AI Conversation with Mian Ahmad - Head of Digital Transformation, Rheem Australia

Imagine yourself at an amusement park.

You've joined a queue for an exciting ride, only to see an adjacent queue start moving faster.

You feel a strange mix of emotions.

Anticipation for the thrill of the ride. Irritation that you might be getting left behind.

In conversation with Mian Ahmad, Head of Digital Transformation at Rheem Australia last week, he shared that similar emotions are being felt in boardrooms across the nation when it comes to AI.

AI is taking over - at least in headlines: A curious and intoxicating cocktail of Hype and FOMO.

Mian shared that the ubiquitous hype around AI seems to have generated inflated expectations in the boardrooms. Rapid advances in generative AI have created new capabilities, but have also generated media headlines that make it seem like AI is taking over.

Hence, a great deal of FOMO. The fear of missing out. With so much chatter around AI it's easy to believe that everyone is doing amazing things with AI and you are getting left in the dust. The desire to rush in can be powerful. Mian knows that talk does not necessarily mean action and recommends a more careful and pragmatic approach.

Doing nothing however is clearly not an option, and this then begs the question, "What should we do with AI?"

A Considered Approach

When contemplating appropriated uses for AI in business, Mian choses to get back to first principles of business. What are the business constants? What foundational truths will not change in 100 years?

He knows that enterprises will always seek to:

  • Increase Revenue
  • Optimise Business Processes and Increase Efficiency
  • Reduce Costs
  • Increase Customer Satisfaction

Just as Amazon is proudly customer obsessed and knows that customers will always want a lower price, Mian uses these three guiding "first principles" to chart a clear path on his business AI journey.

But even with solid guiding principles the AI journey is far from easy. There are some foundations, tools and resources that can present very real challenges.

The need for good data: This should be no surprise. The need for good data has been around for decades. High quality, complete and timely data has long been guiding corporate decisions.

But however much you think that you have. However good it is. It's probably not enough.

AI is a powerfully hungry data beast. Mian comments that, "Data is the fuel of AI", and goes on to highlight a dual problem with manual processes. Not only are they usually inefficient, but they also leak data. Every manual process represents crucial data that is not being captured. Data that could be the difference between AI success or tragedy.

Solid foundation in the Cloud: As Rheem seeks to make the most of automation, driving efficiency and customer service, they turned to the cloud as the architecture of choice to provide the raw processing power needed handle the data and the smarts. This cost-effective flexibility is allowing them to make progress whilst also keeping an eye on constrained budgets and resources.

Test, Measure, and Improve: Not forgetting that there's a business to run, Mian champions an agile approach with pilots using real use cases. The pilots should be based on scientific, pragmatic business terms. He suggests that many seem to overcomplicate this. Mostly he sees AI as a new tool solving traditional (if challenging) business problems. Thus, many of the measures are nothing new.

He sees no need to struggle nor to get overly creative. Leveraging the capabilities of AI and ML to make continued improvements to known metrics and challenges is a smart and sensible way to progress.

GenAI is the new Gold Rush

Referring to the familiar Gartner Hype Cycle, Mian has some very down-to-earth insights and advice for us all.

He sees AI now as very much a technology on the "Cup cycle". This, Mian predicts, will continue to climb for another 3-5 years before reaching the peak of inflated expectations.

Now is the time to invest. This is the optimum time for seeking money from the board to invest in, and experiment with AI projects.

He then describes a coming "AI Winter". What Gartner describes as the Trough of Disillusionment. This is where you must hold to your course. This is the time to build. To develop and pilot AI capabilities that will deliver real value and results.

Finally with a smile, he describes the Plateau of Productivity. The place where business AI becomes enterprise grade. Mian confidently predicts significant value being realised by those that have invested wisely and stayed the course.

The key insight about GenAI that Mian shares is that while there are certainly new caoabilities like better reasoning and creativity, they are foundational. They are more likely to plug in the existing platforms and processes. Most enterprises are either likely to enhance existing use case or deplay new capability as part of the ecosystem. Therefore it is key to choose the right technology partners.

Evolving a Customer Service AI

We are familiar with the Service Chatbot. They seem to be everywhere. Mian points out that Chatbots have been around for a while now. Certainly, from before AI as we know it today.

Rheem in its quest for ever better customer service has had an effective service chatbot for some time. A chatbot (Rhonda) powered by mainly by "decision trees".

With Rheem investment in digital transformation for the last decade, the entire customer experience process had been digitised which provides exactly the right conditions to pilot and exploit Gen AI capabilities.

Now, Rheem has collected a massive amount of previous customer service conversations and holds over 10 years of service call history recordings.

This is the magic potion underpinning the next evolution of Rheem's AI Service Agent. A service Chatbot powered by a specifically trained AI that knows Rheem's business and how to help their customers.

Human in the Loop

As excited as Mian is about generative AI, he cautions the need to retain a human-in-the-loop. In typical straightforward manner he explains that if a human makes a mistake, you can figure out why... and fix it. Whereas if an AI makes a mistake, it can be impossible to understand why.

He cites an example from Air Canada to illustrate this point:

A desperate Air Canada customer asked the chatbot if they would be able to retrospectively claim bereavement fares for an urgent flight. The chatbot confirmed that this was okay. Effectively creating a new policy for Air Canada!

In court Air Canada's defence team attempted to claim that the AI had acted independently and should not bind them. The court however criticised Air Canada's defence and emphasised the airline's responsibility for all information provided on its website, regardless of the source. Following the incident, Air Canada's chatbot appears to be disabled...

Check the Guard Rails

Despite the cautionary Air Canada tale, Mian remains confident and positive about the future of AI. His capable determination seems set to deliver many positive outcomes. Whilst the guard rails are certainly up, Main is adeptly balancing security & risk with vision & experimentation ensuring that he (and Rheem) is perfectly positioned for future AI successes.

Navigating the Future

Mian's story is one of cautious optimism. Rheem's strategic AI deployment, mindful of both potential and pitfalls, sets a sound blueprint for integrating AI into business practices. As AI continues to evolve, maintaining this balance will be key to unlocking its full potential.

In navigating the AI landscape, Mian's advice is clear. Businesses must blend visionary ambition with pragmatic strategy, ensuring that technological advancements serve the timeless first principles of efficiency, cost reduction, and customer satisfaction.

About Mian Ahmad

With over two decades of experience in leveraging technology to drive business growth, Mian has become a pivotal figure in the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) within the corporate landscape. As a trusted advisor to C-level executives, he has guided business transformations, aligning technology investments with strategic objectives to achieve cost savings and IT-enabled business innovation.

About Rheem

Rheem Australia is a leading manufacturer of water heaters and boilers, offering a wide range of residential and commercial heating solutions. Founded on the principles of innovation, reliability, and sustainability, Rheem has been at the forefront of designing and producing energy-efficient water heating products for over 80 years.

Rheem's dedication to excellence and innovation has not only solidified its position as a market leader in water heating solutions but also as a pioneer in the digital transformation of traditional manufacturing industries. Through its focus on sustainable practices, they are ensuring that they remain at the forefront of both technological advancement and environmental stewardship.

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