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Don't rely on data scientists to do AI heavy lifting, former IBM exec warns

Ex-IBM Watson lead Phil Westcott says he has witnessed “a lot of overspending and wasted resources” during his career

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Investing in fleets of data scientists and expecting them to do all the heavy lifting in artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the most common mistakes businesses make, according to former IBM executive Phil Westcott.

Speaking at the virtual AI Festival, Westcott, who formerly lead the IBM Watson platform in Europe and is now co-CEO of AI consultancy firm Filament, told attendees that he had witnessed “a lot of overspending and wasted resources” during his career.

“A couple of the mistakes I've seen is to go out and buy a huge fleet of data scientists and pop them in in a large room and expect that the business outcome will flow magically,” he said.

Another “cautionary tale”, according to Westcott, is “going too far on the operational steps before you've proved the hypothesis within the state of the art of applied AI technology”.

Instead of wasting time and resources on these mistakes, businesses should invest in creating “more agile, cross-functional teams with the engineering skills and business analysts”, he said.

Businesses looking to build their AI capability on a budget must follow five key steps, which include setting a strategy, building AI assets, developing a culture of agility and collaboration, investing in skilled team members, and partnering with academic and industrial organisations.

“In your key strategic areas, where you want to make your own AI assets and build your capability, that's where you will need the help of consultants (...) to bring the benefits of the full ecosystem and bring their experience from other industries and other clients,” he said, before recommending potential partners such as the Google Cloud, IBM Watson, and the Alan Turing Institute.

Companies seeking to develop their businesses' AI capabilities will also benefit from turning their areas of expertise into a competitive advantage and focusing their AI programme on departments such as customer service, research, or HR recruiting.

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“Because if they've already got a differentiated human capability there, they have an opportunity to turn that into a differentiating AI capability by effectively bottling that expertise into machine learning models that can be scaled, and can further augment that human capability,” he added.

Westcott was speaking at a keynote address during the first day of the newly-launched AI Festival. The virtual event, which is backed by BT, aims to explore the influence of AI technology on businesses, skills, and employment, with today’s keynotes focusing on issues such as the future of AI skills, ethical AI, and digital-based approaches to health. 

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