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Most companies are not ready to deploy generative artificial intelligence at scale because they lack strong data infrastructure or the controls needed to make sure the technology is used safely, according to the chief executive of the consultancy Accenture.
The most hyped technology of 2023 is in an experimental phase at most companies and macroeconomic uncertainty is holding back IT spending generally, Julie Sweet told the Financial Times in an interview ahead of the company publishing quarterly results on Tuesday.
Accenture reported another big jump in revenues from generative AI projects in the three months to November 30, with $450mn in bookings compared with $300mn over the previous six months. But they remain small relative to group sales of $64bn annually.
Corporate executives are keen to deploy the technology to understand data across their organisation better or to automate more customer service, Sweet said. “The thing that is going to hold it back, though, is . . . most companies do not have mature data capabilities and if you can’t use your data, you can’t use AI. That said, in three to five years we expect this to be a big part of our business.”
Accenture and other consulting groups have boasted of multibillion-dollar investments in generative AI, including hiring and training staff, in the hope of a windfall from deploying the technology to clients across the world.
Sweet said executives were being “prudent” in rolling out the technology, amid concerns over how to protect proprietary information and customer data and questions about the accuracy of outputs from generative AI models.
“We are still at the stage where most CEOs, asked if there is someone in their organisation who can tell them where AI is being used, what the risks are and how they’re being mitigated, the answer is still ‘no’.
“There is a gap between saying you’re committed to responsible AI and having the programs that allow it to be real on the ground. The good news is that people are not trying to leap over the gap. They are being careful in the rollout and so it does limit, in the short term, some of the scaling opportunities.”
Sweet said this corporate prudence should assuage fears that the development of AI is running ahead of human abilities to control it — a concern that is being debated furiously among technologists, not least at OpenAI, developer of the large language model behind ChatGPT. OpenAI’s non-profit board ousted founder Sam Altman last month after an internal row, only to reinstate him under pressure from staff. The debacle raised questions about how OpenAI was being governed.
Accenture offers generative AI tools based on OpenAI through a partnership with Microsoft and can help clients customise the models to incorporate their own data.
“It is not my responsibility to figure out whether OpenAI has got the right governance,” Sweet told the FT. “Whether it’s OpenAI or any other foundational model, it’s our job to understand the model, understand the risks, and then help our clients get the value out of the models while managing the risks.” She said she was comfortable with the level of transparency around how the models worked.
Areas where the deployment of generative AI was most advanced include corporate knowledge management, such as using internal data for fraud detection at a bank, Sweet said, or commodities trading at an energy company. Clients are also increasingly using the technology for customer service helplines or chatbots, though with humans overseeing the output.
Accenture employs almost 750,000 people in 120 countries, offering IT and business strategy consulting and outsourcing such as customer service centres. Its shares are up about 25 per cent this year, but have not recaptured their high of 2021, when companies were racing to upgrade their technology during the coronavirus pandemic.
A downturn among clients in the tech industry has crimped Accenture’s growth in the past year, and Sweet is in the middle of a cost-cutting programme that will eliminate 19,000 jobs.
On Tuesday, Accenture said sales in the UK in particular had been weaker than expected, as it struggled to find new clients to make up for sluggish demand from the banking sector.
Customers were continuing to sign contracts that could help them cut costs, Sweet said, especially those that also involved IT improvements to help them grow over the long run. However, macroeconomic and geopolitical uncertainties had been a headwind.
“There are no clients saying to me that they want to spend less on tech,” she said. “Most CEOs today would spend more if they could. The macro is a serious challenge. There are not a lot of green shoots around the world. CEOs are not saying 2024 is going to look great. And so that’s going to continue to be a drag on the pace of spending.”