Nigel Willson: Ensuring ‘AI for Good’ with Unprecedented Leadership and Exemplary Success

June 18, 2020

Nigel Willson

The proliferation of Artificial Intelligence has brought some major role change for prevailing leaderships. Dropping their old tactics, they are bound to embrace new vision and a new manner of excelling in the crowd of innovators and innovations. Today’s leadership is more about encouraging team-work, being customer/client-oriented, and adding more value to the team than just being an instructor. The new-age technologies bring in freshness and newness to business with more scope of success and creativity. Therefore, new age leaders must be welcoming to such comprehensive offerings of AI.

Undoubtedly, the new entrants or fresher always look up to the work ethics of their seniors who have influenced masses with their exemplary performance and contribution to the AI industry. Among such influencers, Nigel Willson is one of the most influential personalities who is excelling in the Artificial Intelligence arena with his unmatched leadership values.

In an interview with Analytics Insight, Nigel Willson, the Co-Founder of Awaken AI, tells about his journey to success and how he drives innovation across the technology realm.


Give a brief overview of your background and your current role.

I have worked in the technology industry for nearly thirty years and seen many changes but none as radical as the last few years (or even last few months!). For the last twenty years, I was at Microsoft, working in a number of technical and program management roles, my last role was as a European CTO for professional services where I advised on artificial intelligence and near-future technologies. I left at the end of 2019 to pursue other interests and joined We and AI, a non-profit organization, as co-founder and started my own advisory company Awaken AI. I often speak and advise of artificial intelligence, near-future technologies like quantum computing, and the societal impact of technology, as well as being an influencer in those areas on social media.


Tell us how are you/your company contributing to the Artificial Intelligence Industry of the nation and benefiting clients.

As I am part of two organizations there are two answers to that question.

Firstly, as part of We and AI, we are looking to raise awareness of AI and make it fair and equitable for everyone, through community education, research, and other activities. AI could be used in ways to create an even bigger gap between those who have, and those who have not. We aim to inform and promote AI as a tool for a more inclusive and equal world.

At awaken AI our focus is on bringing our extensive experience to organizations that are either starting to look at AI or those that are concerned about the ethical implications of using AI. Through our advisory team we are looking to help everyone, everywhere get access to, and benefit from, fair and ethical AI solutions.


What were the past experiences, achievements, or lessons that shaped your journey as a successful leader?

There have been many lessons on my journey, the most important I would say is never stand still.

Be a lifetime learner, constantly curious, and be willing to ask the questions that might disrupt the status quo. It is also important to be reflective of what is working and what is not, be brave, and willing to make mistakes. But also remember headlights rather than taillights, look forward more than you look back, and be prepared for what works today to not work tomorrow and have the agility to change direction and approach when you need to.


Describe some of the vital attributes that every innovative leader should possess.

The term ‘fail fast’ frightens many people but taking calculated risks that might not pay off is important to find new opportunities and innovation areas. It is also important to be willing to let an idea go if it isn’t paying off and moving on. Listen to everyone. I have seen graduates come into companies with great enthusiasm and new ideas, only to be told, that would not work here. Build a diverse and inclusive team, listen to everybody’s ideas, and be willing to stretch your own areas of comfort to try something new.


How do you innovate your products/solutions that appeal to your target audience?

Innovate fast and listen to feedback and incorporate good feedback quickly. We have moved away from the times when a product lasted several years before the refresh. With cloud and AI services, solutions can be refreshed easily monthly, often weekly, and sometimes daily. Listen to your customers and incorporate feedback quickly. At Awaken AI we provide advisory solutions and workshops that solve customer problems, customizing our delivery, and making it inclusive, accessible, and fun!


How are disruptive technologies like Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning/Deep Learning/ Automation/Cloud Computing/Big Data impacting today’s innovation and how has the role of a leader has changed over the years?

AI is still in its infancy, but as we have seen with the COVID crisis, AI has had a massive impact on finding solutions to problems, from searching for new vaccines to helping diagnose the disease. This will continue in all areas, not just health care. As more people have worked from home automation and hyper-automation, automation + AI has become a real focus for businesses to augment and some may argue replace the repetitive tasks that people pre-COVID were doing, we need to continue to ensure we keep ‘the human in the loop’ to avoid any unintended consequences. Finally, it is important when looking at AI that we use it to solve real business problems or address business needs not just implement it for the sake of it, projects that implement AI, and then look for a problem to solve tend to fail. Leaders are now more understanding of the technology and the part it can play in making their business successful, their role has changed from one of being led by the IT department and what they can offer to define the services they want and where they want them to come from.


How do you see the AI industry in the future ahead?

There are two main discourses around AI, either that it will take all our jobs and lead to a dystopian future, or that it will be a force for good and be of benefit to all society.

We need to be aware of the negative sides of AI, learn from them, but not create an atmosphere of fear around our future with AI. AI implemented in the right way is amazingly powerful, yet still in its infancy, as it learns and adapts, we also need to learn and adapt, creating policies and governance that keeps us all safe. The post COVID world will see even more rapid adoption of AI across all sectors.


What is your advice for emerging business leaders/executives?

Learn from the past but forget about it being a predictor for the future. We live in a time of exponential technology, and the pace of change post-COVID will become even faster.

There is a danger that as leaders we get excited by the technology and speed of change and take shortcuts when creating solutions. It is important to remain ethical and aware of the impact of the solutions that are being created. Take advice from organizations, like awaken AI, at the start of initiatives and projects to make sure you start your journey in the right way.