Meet the chief executive of Rolls-Royce’s R2 Factory who is helping traditional firms embrace the future of artificial intelligence

Caroline Gorski, the Yorkshire chief executive of Rolls-Royce’s R2 Factory, is at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence but she’s not interested in living in the metaverse, writes Lizzie Murphy.

When Caroline Gorski met the board of Rolls-Royce a few years ago to discuss her new role leading its R2 Data Labs division, she was immediately aware of the enormity of the challenge.

The division uses data and artificial intelligence (AI) to help customers transform the way they operate by applying new technology to old challenges across the business.

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“I said to them, ‘I believe you’re asking me to help you drive a species-led evolutionary shift’,” she says. “It sounds grandiose but that’s the scale of what we’re talking about in many organisations. It takes generations.”

Caroline Gorski, chief executive of Rolls-Royce’s R2 Factory, believes artificial intelligence will augment humans rather than replace them as businesses evolve in the future.

But huge challenges are where Gorski says she thrives.

“I’m a bit like a cat which has jumped up a wall that is a little bit too high,” she says. “My front paws are on top of the wall but my back paws are going ‘ohhhhh...’ I’m happiest at the edge of my capacity. I really love challenges and thinking ‘it’s hard, I’m not sure I can do it, but I think I can’, and that’s exciting.”

Gorski’s latest challenge sees her taking on the new role of chief executive of Rolls-Royce’s R2 Factory, a digital transformation members’ community that helps global organisations tackle their toughest industrial challenges.

Created out of R2 Data Labs, R2 Factory’s 50-strong team of specialists invites member organisations to collaborate with them to build solutions for their digital transformation challenges. The approach combines advanced data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, with digital culture change and system engineering expertise.

R2 Factory is currently working with 10 organisations, including pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, which wants to improve its data analytics and AI capability in its factory processes and develop a digital cultural transformation programme.

“We aren’t doing this to them, we’re helping them do this to themselves,” Gorski says.

As well as pharmaceuticals and healthcare, R2 Factory also works with clients in aviation and other transport sectors as well as the government.

During the pandemic, R2 worked with the Rail Safety and Standards Board, helping it to assess the risk of Covid-19 transmission on trains and work out the point at which travelling would become safe again.

There are four big problem areas which R2 Factory wants help businesses solve: How do you develop artificial intelligence for industrial use in a way that is safe and trusted? How can you use AI and machine learning to improve the resilience of your supply chain? and how do use AI to reduce carbon emissions across the lifecycle of physical products?

The fourth - how do you unlock human potential in your organisation by adopting AI, addresses the fears of those who believe that rapid advances in AI, machine learning, and automation will leave all of us unemployed.

According to Gorski, that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Part of what we deliver to our clients is digital cultural transformation programmes,” she says. “These are about helping businesses to think about how they use artificial intelligence to augment human intelligence.”

She adds: “AI can help to reduce the consumption of energy, lower carbon emissions, help to make things more safe and help to reduce waste by making sure that complex products accurately meet the specifications that are required to get them into the market.

“But AI is going to help by augmenting the humans who are ultimately governing those processes and moving them to a different stage of the process.

“It’s a big shift into an artificial intelligence augmented future, but that’s the future in which we can start to pull some big levers on stuff like achieving net zero and having more resilient and more adaptive supply chains that mean that we don’t end up with massive shortages.”

Rolls-Royce may be headquartered in London but Gorski lives in Skipton with her two teenage daughters and two dogs.

Born in Cambridge, Gorski, the daughter of a clergyman, grew up in Bristol and the West Midlands.

She studied modern history and English literature at Oxford University, graduating in 1995 when the internet was just starting to emerge in the workplace, a development that immediately grabbed her attention.

Her first job was working in the marketing department at Oxford University Press (OUP). “I went to the director of marketing and said ‘have you heard of this thing called the world wide web?’,” she recalls. “He said ‘no’ and I said ‘well, you know this really expensive catalogue of books that you produce every year to show your customers what you’re going to be selling? Well I can make an electronic version of it and put it on the worldwide web instead’.”

Her boss agreed - although they continued to print the catalogue - and Gorski made the first website for the English language teaching division at OUP after teaching herself coding from a book. “It was great, I hand-coded 2,000 pages of HTML 2 and managed to get them up on the corporate server,” she says.

The project caught the attention of the IT department and she switched departments to become a systems analyst, which kickstarted her technical career, working for Telefonica and Sodexo, among other firms.

She arrived in Yorkshire with her family about a decade ago to work for O2 in Leeds.

“What I’m really interested in is how internet technologies are changing the world of work,” she says.

“I’ve always been at this intersection between emerging technology and the impact that emerging technology can have on traditional organisations.

“I’m not interested in being in the metaverse. If other people want to live there, that’s marvellous and I hope they have a fabulous time. I like living in a real world that you can touch and feel, one that breaks down and doesn’t work properly. I’m interested in how emerging technologies make that world a better place.”

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