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THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT IN PRACTICAL AI APPLICATIONS

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By looking at a typical AI application, Dr John Yardley, CEO, Threads Software, discusses how AI processes must take account of humans if they are going to replace them.

 

Almost every business is influenced by human sentiment. And despite its embrace of digitisation, the finance industry is no exception. Share prices, currency movements, investment choices are driven not just by economics but by human emotion and the processes the human brain uses to make decisions.  If we are going to replace humans with machines, we must not cherry-pick the bits of human thinking that we can most easily replicate.

The perception of Artificial Intelligence has changed somewhat since Alan Turing coined the term in the 1950s. Turing said if we cannot distinguish a machine’s behaviour from that of a human, then the machine can be said to be intelligent. Nowadays, we seem to be defining AI as computer programs that emulate the human brain rather than mimic human behaviour. Neural networks, for example, are frequently touted as the pinnacle of AI, but if the neural network in your self-driving car causes you to jump a red light,  we would not describe that as intelligent – no matter how sophisticated the algorithm. If the machine is not fooling the human, not only is it not doing the intended job, it could be negatively affecting the human’s view of it.

 

John Yardley

A practical example – Automatic Speech Recognition

Let’s take the application of ASR (or automatic speech recognition, often wrongly described as voice recognition). ASR can loosely be described as getting a computer to transcribe acoustic human speech into digital text. Few would argue that this is an AI task since what we are seeking to do is replace one of two humans involved in some dialogue. If this can be done without alerting the remaining human to the fact that he/she is talking to a machine, then for sure this would meet Alan Turing’s intelligence criteria and, more important, provide potentially enormous benefit.

However, while some parts of the human process for understanding speech can be emulated using ASR, we must accept that the human listener may be using far more information that we are giving the machine. In a physical conversation, humans will be exchanging gestures, looks and body language, not to mention prior familiarity with the topic of conversation, understanding the accent, and the words being used. Presenting a machine with only a pure acoustic conversation is depriving it of a large proportion of the information available to the human. Even in a telephone conversation, humans will have significantly more knowledge than machines.

Many would be surprised just how good computers are at recognising random words and how bad humans are at articulating meaningful sentences. I have shown people ASR transcriptions of their speech and been met with incredulity. Yet when listening to the recording, the speaker is often forced to admit that the computer generally gets far more correct than he or she would give it credit for.  What the speaker and listener forget is how much interpretation they were applying to filter out the “ahs” and “ums” and “rights” and the repeated words, the hesitations, mumblings, and so on, and how much they make use of prior knowledge about each other and the topic discussed. Listeners frequently perceive words that they do not actually hear.  If the same utterances with words in random order (ie meaningless) were transcribed by human and computer, the computer would likely do better.

 

Number crunching is not the solution

The problem we have is that we cannot continually improve the understanding of speech by continually improving the recognition of words. It is like trying to get a car with flat tyres to go faster by putting in a larger engine. The engine is not the critical path and it is cheaper and more effective to pump up the tyres than improve the engine.  So too with speech. In order to behave and understand like a human, the machine needs more information, not better algorithms or more computer power to improve the word recognition.

Many banks would argue that it doesn’t matter if the customer has to repeat an account number 10 times during a telephone banking transaction because it is not costing the bank any more than saying it once.  But here again, the human factors are all-important. It is no consolation that repeating something 10 times might ultimately bring down a customer’s bank charges – eventually the customers will vote with their feet.

 

.. but adding information is.

So what is the solution? The remedy  is that AI must be applied to the problem as a whole, not just to isolated parts. Taking ASR as an example again, by using readily available information contained in email correspondence, speech recognition performance can be improved far more than by improving the ASR algorithm or running it on a bigger computer.  The emails can be used to effectively train the ASR system on the types of words that are exchanged and the subject matter being discussed. In addition, text-based messages can give valuable clues to the grammar being used – the sequences of words, the likely combinations of words, etc.  In short, the context of the discussion.  Being able to share email and voice traffic is already possible, but is not yet being widely applied, and yet could dramatically benefit both financial institutions and their customers by helping a computer better understand the context of a conversation.

Speech recognition is just one example of an AI process that often falls short on expectation. There are many more applications of AI that can be improved by taking a holistic view, not just the bits we like. AI is all about emulating humans, not number crunching. To do this, we need to understand as much as we can about the human process we wish to automate.

Looking at how the human processes information can yield benefits in many areas of IT. For example, some of the largest advances in video data compression came from an understanding of what the human eye can perceive rather than the mathematics of information theory.

In summary, AI is not about building more and more powerful neural networks, it is about convincing a human that the computer is doing as good or better a job than another human would. And to achieve this, we must tap as many information sources that the human has available – which with some lateral thinking are available to the machines too. If this information is not present then we cannot compensate by continuously improving just some parts of the process. We must either find more context or rethink the solution. Until this happens, ASR may be subject to the law of diminishing returns.

 

Business

How to identify the signs that your IT department need restructuring

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Eric Lefebvre, Chief Technology Officer at Sovos

 

For firms to execute transformations and meet their overall vision, it is crucial that their CIOs are able to recognise the signs that their department is in need of some internal change. In the current economic climate, CIOs working to fulfil their organisation’s priorities and meet business goals might hesitate to acknowledge that their IT department needs restructuring, never mind be able to identify the signs.

However, these problems rarely fix themselves and organisational restructuring requires conviction and determination from leadership for it to occur successfully. So, what are some of the key signs that CIOs should look out for?

Eric Lefebvre

 

Struggling to keep up with industry demands

CIOs unsurprisingly are working in an extremely demanding environment at the moment. Meeting these evolving demands is crucial for companies. When demands are not met and not handled properly, this can have a lasting impact on organisational goals and objectives, and even impact the way in which transformations are put into effect.

Depending on the organisation’s structure, the way in which being unable to keep up with demands manifests itself can differ. Despite double digit reductions across the industry, the search for talent across the tech world continues, project costs continue to rise as the cost of labour has increased and schedules have been disrupted by significant attrition. Many companies will also find business costs, such as that of third-party software, are higher than planned and technology debt continues to pile up faster than it can be sunset.

Whilst leadership teams might dedicate their department’s attention on the factors discussed above, they may find that their team will fall short when it comes to timely deliverables and helping maintain your organisation’s tech stack and guide its business transformations. Looking beyond the immediate problems of high costs and considering an internal reshuffle may be the solution for many IT departments.

 

Internal conflict within the team

Organisational designs with underlying issues can cause constant friction, especially when they go unacknowledged. An IT department that lives in conflict will certainly be reflected in results and less than successful tech transformations. CIOs will find that by adopting an organisational design which works through staffing issues, will better innovate, especially if they can all work together.

Department leads should have a strong understanding of their team’s work environment and guide them through any long-term or potential problems. When an individual is working in a demanding or complex industry, working well with your team shouldn’t be the main impediment to innovation. By acting quickly to eliminate internal conflict, CIOs can better lead and ensure their team’s focus is entirely on producing more optimal outcomes.

 

Delays are commonplace

When a large amount of your team’s time is spent setting objectives, budgets and timelines for the projects they are working on, it is vital that they are met. When delays are coming from the IT department, they will inevitably hinder the development of any business transformation, especially if it prompts teams to spend excessive amounts of time rearranging budgets and timelines and therefore hindering innovation.

IT departments are a crucial aspect in many different parts of a company’s transformations, so remaining on track when it comes to timelines and innovation is critical to operational plans. If delays have become commonplace in an IT team, and external factors are impacting projects, CIOs should look at restructuring an IT department to solve these issues.

The strongest team relationships do not happen by accident and are the result of good planning, strong leadership and a motivated team. CIOs can ensure this by providing vision and long-term strategy with clear goals and objectives to produce high levels of quality output.

When internal issues are noticed in an IT department, and are noticeably impacting team morale or productivity, this should indicate the need for departmental restructuring. Be that due to an inability to meet market demands, issues with productivity and meeting deadlines or internal conflict, these issues all risk a department’s functionality and an organisation’s ability to achieve its goals. In short, don’t overlook the warning signs!

 

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Business

The need for simpler cross-border payments must be a priority for all banks

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Mushegh Tovmasyan – Founder of Zenus Bank

 

Despite the transformative changes we have seen in the banking sector over the last decade, there remains a considerable disparity in accessing financial services from country to country and even vital day-to-day services such as cross-border payments or funds transfers.

A strong emphasis on banking personalization has driven us towards bigger and better digital experiences. Meanwhile, continuous globalization and the requirement to engage across borders means the need for global financial inclusion where individual customers, as well as businesses, have the same sort of access to useful and affordable financial services across transactions, payments, and savings, through digital banking is more apparent than ever.

The rise of challenger and neo banks, as well as fintech providers, has transformed the capabilities of the banking sector, which can now offer a vast array of services to customers. These include new interactive service models, from cryptocurrencies, Buy Now Pay Later products and embedded financial lending services from companies across various sectors – ranging from supermarkets to global sports companies – outside of the banking industry. Meanwhile, the pandemic exacerbated the trend towards completely digital companies that operate remotely and need to be able to provide cross-border services instantly to work with other globally-orientated partners, pay staff anywhere across the world and expand global supply chains into new geographic markets.

Mushegh Tovmasyan

One area that is growing rapidly is Latin America, where fintech investment has accelerated significantly. The region saw growth of nearly four times, rising from $4.1 billion in 2020 to $15.7 billion in 2021. Latin America serves as a perfect breeding ground for fintech start-ups. Primarily because banks across the region have, historically, only served affluent individuals due to a lack of competition and stringent credit requirements. A large portion of the overall population is still underbanked, ranging from 30 percent to 50 percent in major countries. Even for those with credit cards or bank accounts with local banks, the user experience is generally poor, while many banks have failed to invest in technological infrastructure and improve the digital experience.

Clearly, across the region, there is significant demand for access to a global secure bank account for a range of needs. For employees in developing economies working for companies who currently wait weeks to be paid through local banks. For small businesses looking to access and collaborate with new markets, and to provide access to a strong currency – the U.S. dollar – for those in developing countries with less stable economies, transforming the capabilities of international digital banking. This trend has only accelerated as remote working has become the new norm and companies employ staff all over the world. We at Zenus, therefore, believe offering a secure, transparent and scalable international bank will be vital for banks to provide financial inclusion to millions of people, businesses and organizations still without these essential products.

Consequently, the banking sector is now investing heavily in products that can offer secure, transparent and scalable international payment services that will be vital for providing financial inclusion to millions of people, businesses and organizations operating in developing economies. Cross-border banking, for example, and the ability to transfer money across bank accounts from different countries, provide a unique challenge that many banks are looking to address. While money has always been transferred across borders, the increase in cross-border flows of both capital and citizens in today’s world has resulted in more financial organizations looking to provide this service instantaneously.

In response, international banking licenses – the concept of globally-focused banks running on the same technology infrastructure across each country under one global license – are now being repurposed by banks to not just service High Net-worth and ultra wealthy customers but for anybody, anywhere in the world, especially in emerging countries where the need exists the most.

Banking accounts can be opened remotely and accessed from anywhere, providing customers with a global footprint, constant access to their funds and providing access to a global account for those in developing countries with less stable economies.

At Zenus, we believe this growing trend will be one of the defining changes across the global banking sector – helping to address the recurring problem of transferring money overseas from a complex, expensive and time-consuming process to an instant routine task – and is the main area we are investing and working with strategic partners to help scale these services for customers across the globe. By also offering our banking infrastructure via API’s and White Label services, we enable prominent Brands and fintech providers to expand their global reach and explore new revenue verticals. UK fintechs, for example, could service US clients or Latin American clients helping cross-border banking to become accessible everywhere.

These changes will also help complement the rise of embedded finance services such as Banking as a Service (BaaS), providing financial services to any company, no matter the sector, that is looking to adopt and implement these products on a global scale. The concept also has the potential to transform and democratize in developing nations, where it can take a few weeks for people to be paid through local banking channels.

That is our mission at Zenus – to make it easier and safe for clients to access, send, receive and store money in the U.S. from anywhere globally. Our international license gives customers constant access to their funds without requiring U.S. residency or citizenship.

The demand for simple and seamless cross-border payments could help transform the global banking system. Not only by providing new standards for the global banking sector but by ensuring customers can have access to an international bank instantly and no matter where they are based.

 

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