Every year, business leaders and experts in emerging technologies share their predictions about the tools that will shape the next 12 months. In January, Raconteur’s tech columnist, futurist and influencer Bernard Marr, shared his views on the vital topics no business could afford to ignore in 2023: AI, cybersecurity and the metaverse. Now, more than halfway through the year, have these changed?
Business’s AI obsession grows
Artificial intelligence has long been on the savvy business leader’s radar, but the release of ChatGPT last November spawned an obsession with this group of technologies in H1 2023, the sheers scale of which few people could have predicted.
“Generative AI will continue to gain considerable airtime in the boardroom. It will act as a Trojan horse,” says Kate Smaje, global leader of McKinsey Digital, referring to its potential reach into so many aspects of business.
Any leader who’s been reluctant to embrace generative AI, perhaps because of the fear it engenders in employees who worry about losing their jobs, can no longer afford to dither. AI has become a core business tool that could even create new opportunities for the workforce, according to Smaje.
“The focus is moving away from the tech alone to the human-tech collaboration,” she says. “It’s now about the reskilling challenge of creating the next generation of prompt engineers; the investment in what it takes to lead an AI-enabled organisation; and the change management required to get the most out of this powerful technology.”
Cybersecurity: never sexy but still crucial
With the rise of AI comes the need for ever more robust cybersecurity measures. Charles Eagan, chief technology officer at BlackBerry, cites research his firm conducted at the start of 2023 which found that almost half of all IT chiefs believed that a successful cyber attack enabled by generative AI would occur within the year.
“It’s become clear just how accurate the prediction was,” he says.
Even without factoring in the adoption of AI by cybercriminals, the number of attacks continues to grow. In its Cyber Security Breaches Survey 2023, published in April, the UK government estimated that there had been 2.39 million cases of cybercrime in the preceding 12 months.
This year alone, PayPal, JD Sports, Capita, X (formerly Twitter) and the NHS are known to have suffered significant data security breaches. Just this week, news broke that there had been a cyber attack on the UK’s electoral registers.
Weak software supply chains continue to expose vulnerabilities that enable hackers to break through several firms’ defences in one strike, Eagan notes. A notable example is the cyber attack on payroll provider Zellis in June, which compromised the personal data of thousands of employees at organisations including BA, Boots and the BBC.
“Too many companies optimistically assume that the security of their software partners is of comparable strength to their own,” he says. “Trust alone is inadequate. Instead, 24x7 threat watching – through extended detection and response – is a must.”
But AI has defensive applications too. Eagan explains that predictive AI enables firms to detect threats more proactively and respond to them more effectively, describing it as “cybersecurity’s great equaliser”.
It may also be reassuring to know that 44% of UK firms surveyed in BlackBerry’s research are planning to enter next year with AI-powered cyber protection in place, increasing to 78% by the end of 2024.
Was the metaverse a red herring?
According to data from Google Trends, the number of online searches featuring the term “metaverse” peaked in January 2022 and has been falling ever since. But there are still businesses putting their eggs in the extended-reality basket.
Most notably, Apple announced its mixed-reality headset, the Vision Pro, to great excitement in June 2023. Management consultancy Bain recently published research suggesting that the metaverse could reach up to $900bn (£708bn) in revenue by 2030, although it may remain in the seed stage for at least another five years.
But does the metaverse really offer anything to businesses?
“I’ve never encountered an environment where those sorts of things feel comfortable for easy interaction, even in hybrid working,” says Pete Williams, director of data at publisher Penguin Random House UK. “It’s always subject to the variability of your connection and the equipment you’re using. A consistent experience is really hard to achieve.”
He mentions a colleague’s early attempts at mixed-reality hybrid meetings and how frustrating the experience can still be.
“I don’t think anyone is ready for it,” Williams says. “The recent spread of hybrid working gave us a false expectation that it was going to be easy. But, now that people are meeting in person again, that goal has receded. It’s really going to take someone revolutionary like Apple, with a user-based mindset rather than a technical one, to make the metaverse relevant to people again.”
Why data literacy should be a top priority
What should be a focus for businesses in H2 is the democratisation of internal data, according to Williams. This wealth of material, wherever it sits in the organisation, “has to be freed to mingle”.
He argues that firms need to combine this work with a concerted effort to improve data literacy throughout the organisation.
Williams would advise any business leader to “give people the competence to interact with the information – the ability to construct a persuasive argument with the data”.
Reaching that point is as much about leadership and culture change as it is about specific IT tools. This principle applies across all tech teams in organisations, according to Smaje.
“The next six months will be less about new technology trends and more about how companies use what they have responsibly and collaboratively,” she says. “I hope we will talk more about harnessing the power of tech trends rather than just the technology itself.”
However meteoric the rise of AI has been in recent months, for most businesses, the human ability to understand, shape and deploy the powerful tech at their disposal remains essential.