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Consumer concerns about privacy, data and personal safety could throttle the pace of innovation for a host of technologies.

These include autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, the global consultancy PwC has warned.

The consultancy makes the comments in the technology trends section of the annual global CEO survey 2019.

The survey is rather downbeat about technology in general. It notes a host of tech developments are expected to have an outsized impact on the way we live and the way businesses operate.

No consistent return

Yet it lists AI, augmented reality, blockchain, drones, robotics, virtual reality, 3D printing, cloud-based computing, the Internet of things, AV and the connected car as tech that “has yet to deliver usage examples that are sufficiently robust or that have not consistently generated a return on investment”.

PwC also notes that just 40 per cent of the technology leaders, it interviewed were confident of their organisation’s revenue growth potential in the next 12 months.

AI in silos with stubborn biases

PwC also suggests that AI has yet to make real inroads into business operations. “Organisations that have implemented it typically do so only in discrete, siloed, back-office applications such as human resources and finance,” it said.

It points out that firms continue to avoid establishing transparent oversight of the decisions made by AI software. This means they are not addressing stubborn biases inherent in the algorithms on which the software depends, especially in areas that touch on social and political concerns such as human resources, law enforcement and housing.

PwC says that self-driving cars pose a similar problem for many of the startups that are hoping to find a lucrative niche in this segment of the industry.

It adds: “Significant engineering problems in building true autonomous vehicles (AVs) still remain, but the neural networks and sensor systems companies have developed to teach cars to drive themselves have already become remarkably sophisticated. However, they still make mistakes — even if they do so just 0.01 per cent of the time mistakes that confound people’s ability to mitigate them”.

It adds that to the public at large, a single AV accident is amplified well beyond a pileup of traditional cars on the highway, because AVs are viewed as another alien technology coming to change their lives in ways that are not clearly beneficial.

Addressing safety is key to monetisation

PwC adds that assuaging concerns about the fairness and safety of these technologies will be critical to monetising them.

The firm believes the public and political pressure on companies such as Facebook and Google to take individual privacy more seriously and protect sensitive customer data is an indicator of the changing context for the entire technology sector.

Yet the report also notes that just 20 per cent of the technology CEOs surveyed said they were ‘extremely concerned’ about lack of trust in business as a threat to their revenue prospects.

PwC says this may be short-sighted.

“As companies both inside and outside the tech sector increasingly pursue digital business models dependent on collecting greater amounts of personal data from customers and others, weaving their services ever deeper into the lives of users and the business activities of enterprise customers, the issues surrounding trust will only grow in importance — and the consequences of breaking that trust will likely become more severe.

“For one thing, people will become less willing to give up their personal data, and enhanced data concerns about rising technologies such as AI, AVs, and the IoT and their impact on information security, privacy, and personal safety could begin to throttle the pace of innovation.”

PwC says cybersecurity must be presented as an example of how companies are proactively safeguarding digital privacy and guarding against the misuse of personal data, while extending these protections to new technologies — such as AI and the IoT.

Demands are also rising that AI systems be ‘explainable’ — transparent in how they make decisions, and clear in their impact on the people they potentially affect.

PwC conducted 3,200 interviews with CEOs in more than 90 territories. There were 224 respondents from the technology sector, and 18% of technology CEOs reported an annual revenue greater than US$1bn.

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