Among all the industries open about adopting artificial intelligence – healthcare, finance, legal, manufacturing, marketing and many more – the utilities sector has been more of a closed book.
So what can AI do for a business like Thames Water – one of the UK’s fundamental utility companies, serving 15 million customers with what we have long considered a very basic necessity?
To find out, AI Business spoke to Scott Wilkins, Head of Transformation at Thames Water. Having attended The AI Summit in London last month, Scott shared his thoughts on an AI-enabled enterprise, his strategies for incorporating AI at Thames Water, and the challenges his company face as its looks to adopt AI.
Scott Wilkins of Thames Water
“Artificial intelligence is gaining increasing momentum and I believe its rapid adoption across a wide range of businesses is inevitable”, Scott begins. “As each day passes I see businesses increasingly understanding what AI can do for them”.
Amid the understanding, though, Scott believes there is also a degree of experimentation:
“Companies that have the motivation and confidence to try new technology will thrive. You haven’t got to start big – pick one part of the business where it could work and explore the possibilities”.
Why do companies need to be ‘confident’ though? What stands in the way of mass adoption of AI? Scott feels it is primarily a matter of image:
“It is critical to shake the influence Hollywood has had on artificial intelligence and build a culture and community within the business that embraces the change. We also need to demystify some of the technical language and help people understand, and from there we need to demonstrate the ‘art of the possible’ through practical example”.
The AI Summit threw up many of the possibilities of the AI-enabled enterprise, as well as some of the challenges it faces. We asked Scott for his key takeaway from the event:
“The most notable takeaway was the pace of change and references to the fourth industrial revolution which was backed up by facts and the trends being observed today.
“Learning from those who have already embarked on the journey was also hugely valuable. The practical examples presented by various business leaders demonstrating the positive impact AI is having on their business was also inspiring. It certainly feels like things are moving rapidly, it’s going to happen around us and therefore you need to decide whether you will be part of it”.
So where are Thames Water on their journey? Scott reveals an exciting new partnership:
“With our newly formed Technology and Transformation Alliance (consisting of Accenture, IBM, Bilfinger and Deloitte) we are starting to develop the capability that will act as a launch pad to bring AI into Thames Water. In parallel we are leveraging our existing capability right now to test and incubate a number of immediate opportunities”.
Scott explains that Thames Water has a number of immediate priorities, including providing an excellent service to its 15 million customers and keeping its employees safe and healthy. He also reveals that they have set themselves a number of “stretching operational goals”, such as further reducing leakage and eliminating the need to ever interrupt the water supply to their customers.
As he looks to tackle these priorities, Scott explains that Thames Water have divided AI into several pathways:
“The first is Machine Learning – how can we improve our predictive analytics to enhance our service? The second is Process – what processes can we automate to allow our employees to focus their attention on the more complex aspects of their jobs? And finally, Image Recognition/Virtual Reality – we have millions of images capturing the work we do and a huge field force, how do we leverage this to make us more effective?
“In the short term”, Scott continues, “we are looking both internally and externally to deliver fast-paced solutions across these pathways to prove the benefits of AI. We are challenging ourselves to do this at pace, fail fast and learn. We are rapidly building a selection of potential use cases with proof of concepts following. We are also not constraining ourselves to solving existing problems, we are challenging ourselves to think beyond that and into areas that may transform our operations”.
And as for the utilities industry as a whole?
“Utilities often cover vast geographic areas, operate thousands of physical assets (above and below the ground), serve millions of customers, are present in nearly every single street and have a physical connection to every property. There are many areas where AI will have an impact helping us to execute work, make better judgements and identify where we need to take action to prevent something going wrong. There are so many untapped possibilities with the volume of asset-related data being generated increasing exponentially.
“Most importantly, customers will be the winners. The service provided will be better, more consistent, faster, easier and better tailored to their needs”.
The conclusion: “We have a very exciting future ahead of us”, Scott says.
We spoke to Scott after he attended the inaugural AI Summit in London on 5 May together with over 400 other influential AI and business leaders. The second, larger AI Summit takes place in San Francisco on 28-29 September. To find out more, and to join us at the Fort Mason Center in September, visit: theaisummit.com
Feature image credit: http://www.thameswater.co.uk/media/13550.htm#
Embedded image credit: http://www.thameswater.co.uk/tw/common/images/TW_LOGO_CMYK_BLUE.png