Fear of AI-driven job losses is ‘paralysing’ innovation, argues BT’s digital supremo

BT Group’s chief digital and innovation officer, Harmeen Mehta, believes that UK plc needs to stop worrying about the threats presented by artificial intelligence and focus instead on the opportunities

231023 Harmeen Mehta Bt

As AI-based tech becomes ever more sophisticated, concerns about its possible negative effects on society are growing. Chief among these is the threat it poses to the labour market. Indeed, in a new paper entitled Future Risks of Frontier AI, the Government Office for Science considers a scenario in which increased automation disrupts the UK’s workforce, leading to increased unemployment and poverty by 2030.

Such outcomes are far from unlikely. IBM’s chairman and CEO, Arvind Krishna, expects that about 7,800 jobs at the company could be replaced by generative AI in the medium term, for instance. Meanwhile, BT Group’s leadership team has been open about its plan to slash the firm’s headcount by 55,000, using tech including AI to automate up to 10,000 jobs within seven years. 

Harmeen Mehta, the telco’s chief digital and innovation officer, believes that too much attention is being paid to the technology’s negative impact on people whose jobs it’s already affecting. 

I don’t know how horses felt when the car was invented, but they didn’t complain that they were put out of a job; they didn’t go on strike

“Society changes and jobs morph,” she says. “I don‘t know how horses felt when the car was invented, but they didn’t complain that they were put out of a job; they didn’t go on strike. It’s part of evolution. Some jobs will change, some new ones will be created and some will no longer be needed.” 

The UK press has adopted a particularly circumspect attitude towards AI, according to Mehta, who believes that the media focus in the US and much of Asia has been much more on its potential applications. 

“The media here is creating a level of paranoia that’s going to paralyse this country – it creates more emotional problems for me than I do for myself,” she says. “I’ve spent the past two years trying to convince my company that human intelligence and artificial intelligence can work together.”

Mehta believes that the UK is trailing badly in the innovation stakes behind the US, which is home to firms at the forefront of AI development, including OpenAI, Amazon and Microsoft. 

“The UK is a leader in research, but we lag on turning that into products that generate revenue,” she observes. “We‘re not monetising our own brain cells.“

Creating a startup culture at BT

Mehta joined the company in March 2021 to lead its digital transformation unit, BT Digital. This department is responsible for modernising the business, which she describes as “a little bit more institutionalised” than her previous employer, Indian telco Bharti Airtel.

Having missed out on a “whole wave of transformation”, BT has left itself “a lot of catching up to do”, according to Mehta. With this in mind, she is determined that the firm will seize the latest opportunities created by the rise of generative AI systems such as ChatGPT.

“If I don‘t do this for BT, the business won’t survive because every other company will do it and overtake us,” she stresses.

The UK is not going to be an AI hub if you don’t let companies adopt AI

In her bid to “shake up” the enterprise, which can trace its roots back to 1846, Mehta has been hiring candidates with experience in startups to inject some entrepreneurial spirit into the organisation. 

“These people have shown what they can do without the resources of BT, so imagine what they can do for the country, not just for the company, if we give them a bit of room,” she says.

Alongside its remit for product innovation and service digitalisation, Mehta’s unit is also responsible for finding £1bn in savings through digital transformation with a project that’s known internally as “simplify”. This forms part of the wider £3bn cost-reduction target set last year by BT’s outgoing CEO, Philip Jansen.

These savings will come from measures such as productivity improvements, a reduction in spending on legacy systems, a shift away from using subcontractors and, crucially, the adoption of generative AI. 

AI should be a ‘call to arms’ for society

While Mehta accepts that this last measure in particular will affect numerous roles at the company, she encourages people to retrain to avoid being automated out of a job.

“Every job that exists today won’t exist in exactly the same form in the future,” she argues. “The people who reskill themselves will have jobs, at this company or another, while those who don‘t might not. That is simply part of the evolution of society.”

This challenge should be reframed as a “call to arms for society“ that urges people to “wake up, reinvent yourself and get ready”, says Mehta, who adds: “Why is it my job to make every person in the company relevant for the future? It‘s their responsibility to put themselves on the map and mine to create an opportunity for them to do that. It takes two to tango.” 

Reskilling works beautifully if it’s done with the right mindset and people are hungry to lea

Mehta can provide a clear example of how this approach is working at BT. Earlier this year, she encouraged tech-savvy workers in the firm’s Belfast call centre to apply for jobs in her business unit. Of the 50 or so applicants, four have gone on to have full-time roles in BT Digital and have received training on low-code platforms (which don’t require deep knowledge of programming languages to use).

“They’ve gone from working in call centres to building the technology we’ll be using in call centres,” Mehta says. “I just created a little bit of an atmosphere and gave them a platform. The experience has made me confident that reskilling works beautifully if it’s done with the right mindset and people are hungry to learn.”

She would like such a model to become more prevalent in British business. In her view, if this country is ever to become a leading AI power, people must learn to stop worrying about the risks posed by the technology and focus on the opportunities it offers. 

“The UK is not going to be an AI hub if you don’t let companies adopt AI. While this will mean that some mundane jobs will disappear, new kinds of jobs will be created,” she argues. “This can lead to much more innovation because we’ll be spending less time writing emails and more time actually thinking.”