Don’t write off the humans just yet

Dame Sharon White, Chair, JLP

As Prime Minister Rishi Sunak touched down on British soil on his return from Washington, he added another thing to his to-do list – help save the world from the robots.

The Prime Minister has pledged to work with President Biden on the safety of artificial intelligence as part of the Atlantic Agreement signed two weeks ago in the American Capital.

AI is the latest frontier for technology companies to advance humanity but it also comes with a dark side. Together, the US and the UK have the clout to ensure that some international standards are set.

Some of the globe’s leading tech firms have said they still need to fully understand the behaviour of their emerging AI systems.

When the most ardent proponents of a new technology are calling for regulation, then we should pause and take heed.

It will take time – something that many cautious voices in AI say we don’t have.

AI will save humanity or end it, so experts say, but either way the UK has a rich history of tech innovation and will lead the way.

Regulation will have an important role to play in helping to ensure AI is safe.

Effective regulation can help bring certainty, which in turn supports investment and innovation. Move too soon and intervention risks stifling innovation.

Move too late and you risk consumer harm. Discrimination in the algorithm is also a real issue to manage.

Of course, AI is not new. While Chat GTP thrust it into the public eye last year, most industries have used AI for many years. John Lewis opened the UK’s first automated warehouse in 2009.

Many companies have followed.  But for our business AI will never replace the uniqueness of human connection and senses.

Robots will never trump the creativity of our chefs conjuring up new food combinations where taste, smell and touch are so critical to experiencing our food or the creativity of our John Lewis designers.

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The John Lewis Partnership is a business founded on human relationships and emotional connections. The serendipitous moments we get when meeting people – the personal touch in the way we serve our customers.

Human connection is why the Partnership is built on trust and a closeness to our customers who feel they have a stake in the business.

That comes from our employees – or Partners as we’re called – owning the business. Of course, new technologies must be embraced for businesses to modernise and meet customers’ needs.

The John Lewis Partnership has a history of taking bets on innovation – we got into online retail before many. AI will help ensure our stock flows round the business in the most efficient way.

It will also help to make our customers’ lives easier by providing recommendations about what products they may like based on their preferences.

But we will always choose the power of human connections, creativity and senses. For a people-centric business like ours, the robots won’t be taking over, so don’t write off the humans just yet.


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