Ready or Not, Here Comes AI

EDITOR’S NOTE: Welcome to Future’s third edition of Need to Know, a series exploring complex topics and how they apply to each industry served by our websites and magazines.

As emerging technologies go, artificial intelligence (AI) has certainly taken its time in making its presence felt on the world.

Surprising as that may be, the term AI has actually been around for almost 70 years, having been first coined back in 1955 by computer scientist John McCarthy, a.k.a. the “father of AI,” the same year “Doc” Emmett Brown is said to have invented time travel in the movie Back to the Future.

Since then, AI has experienced a largely stop-start existence, principally due to sporadic funding and below-par technology. In truth, the term AI has (arguably) gained more notoriety for storylines of killer robots (and the occasional WALL-E) hell-bent on destroying mankind than for its practical use and business benefits. But that’s all changing.

Thanks to breakthroughs in computing power, the advent and availability of big data, cloud hosting/storage, highly sophisticated software and complex algorithms, AI is now starting to fulfill its potential — with the business world being the biggest benefactor.

The market has reacted at pace. In recent years, billions of dollars have been invested by many of — if not all — of the world’s leading organizations into AI technologies (and companies), each of them looking to utilize some form of AI technology to future-proof and improve their businesses, and/or create a competitive advantage.

Various estimates suggest businesses will spend more than $46 billion on AI services by 2020, with that figure rising to more than $51 billion 12 months later.

Where We Are

Depending on what you have seen, heard or read (fictional or not), you may have different ideas about what AI is and what its capable of at this stage. To offer some clarity, there are three simple levels to be aware of:

1.) Weak AI, or AI capable of demonstrating human intelligence to carry out specific tasks;
2.) Strong AI, capable of showing self-awareness, the ability to think and make decisions for itself to the same level as a human being;
3.) AI Super Intelligence, showing superior levels of intelligence to human beings and fully in control of its existence.

For now — and for the foreseeable future — only Weak AI is currently relevant, so it’s time to remove any images of a leather-clad, sunglasses-wearing Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It’s Already Here

Examples of weak AI have widely been adopted by many different business and are in use today — you just might not realize it.

In fact, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’ve already unknowingly encountered some form of AI and machine learning technology before you started reading this article, or maybe even before you got out of bed.

Have you ever used Apple’s personal assistant, Siri? Or Google’s Alexa? Perhaps you’ve noticed how your emails can often now detect questions being asked of you and automatically provide you with a ready-made short reply? How about your smartphone that seems to be able to predict sentences you’re about to type as you’re typing?

For those who like a bit of online shopping (such as Amazon) or video streaming (Netflix), have you ever wondered how those personalized recommendations are determined? What about Facebook and its ability to not only recognize there are people in the photo you’ve posted, but to sometimes even identify them, too?

They’re all using some form of AI, with the intention of bettering their customer’s experience, enhancing their financial opportunities and — unseen externally — improving their workplace efficiency.

“We are at the cusp of a new revolution, one that will ultimately transform every organization, every industry and every public service across the world,” Microsoft Asia president Ralph Haupter said. “I believe 2018 is the year that this will start to become mainstream, to begin to impact many aspects of our lives in a truly ubiquitous and meaningful way.”

AI for All

You may be forgiven for thinking the implementation of AI is something exclusively for Fortune 500 companies, but you’d be wrong. Today, things are so advanced that there is unlimited growth potential with AI companies designed to support business like yours.

In essence, AI is something that can be packaged up and purchased on a monthly basis, like your broadband or phone service. This model reduces significant costs associated with more bespoke in-house solutions.

It also means the complexity is significantly removed (the “it doesn’t matter how it works as long as it works” approach), meaning you won’t necessarily need to go and employ a qualified and expensive computer scientist.

“You don’t need to be a mathematics genius or have a Ph.D. in software engineering to make sense of AI for your business,” Gartner analyst Whit Andrews said. “You don’t have to make massive investments in infrastructure and personnel in order to start applying AI’s potentially transformative technologies.

“These technologies will transform the nature of work and the workplace itself,” he added. “Machines will be able to carry out more of the tasks done by humans, complement the work that humans do and even perform some tasks that go beyond what humans can do. As a result, some occupations will decline, others will grow and many more will change.”

So, why should you and your business consider implementing AI? Could it be just a fad? Will it really benefit you?

The answers are wide, extremely varied and will be largely unique to your own business. There may be some obvious areas of your business you’d like to improve upon — be it financially or operationally motivated.

The magnitude and inevitability of AI cannot be ignored nor underestimated. Many AI experts and professionals have described the potential impact of AI on businesses as being equivalent to the invention and adoption of the personal computer and email.

Some suggest AI can help boost revenues by around 20%, while others warn that any business currently not at least thinking about adopting some form of AI could already be two years behind a rival. Further delays could even result in their demise further down the road due to losing a competitive advantage.

Getting Started

The first thing to remember is what the purpose of AI actually is, and identifying how it can benefit your business. From speaking to various professionals in the field, it can be narrowed down to two core components: solving existing problems and discovering/identifying new opportunities.

At its core, AI is fueled by data, which can come in many different forms for many different uses. Emails, newsletters, subscriptions, website views, downloads and sales are just some examples of where data can be collected.

On its own, that data may not seem useful. However, contained within, it could be the difference between success and failure or profits and losses. This is where AI comes into play, and where it would be able to — in many instances — do the job of a human.

In a quote that’s famous within AI circles, Michael Palmer of the Association of National Advertisers summed it up well: “Data is just like crude [oil]. It’s valuable, but, if unrefined, it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc., to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; data must be broken down and analyzed for it to have value.”

Today, the bulk of that potentially valuable data held in companies is still not being utilized.

“If we look at the amount of data which is actually being analyzed today, only 20% of the data we have is searchable and being used productively,” IBM chairman, president and CEO Ginni Rometty said during a discussion on the subject. “The other 80% is held inside companies, generally not being used.”

Impact on Jobs

One of the more universal drivers for AI is centered around automation — a word that often spreads fear when discussing the risks to people’s professions. Areas such as administrative work (such as data processing and data collection) are widely seen as functions where AI will support — or even replace — humans.

“If your work is repetitive and not creative, you will be gone very soon,” was a stark warning offered by Dr. Roman V. Yampolskiy, a professor in the department of computer engineering and computer science at the Speed School of Engineering, University of Louisville.

Said Cornell University computer science professor Bart Selman: “A lot of large companies have middle-management jobs where people manage other people at a very low level in terms of keeping track of things like vacations and sick days. Those jobs, I believe, are at risk; jobs that involve a large routine component. If you’ve made the proper investment, you can develop an AI system that can take over a good fraction of those jobs. A lot of big companies have a lot of those positions and will be looking at it.”

Examples of automation and job loss can currently be seen all over the world. Some of the headline-grabbing stories include the investment of $1.7 million by Japanese insurance firm Fukoku Mutual Life on an AI platform with IBM Watson that was used to replace more than 30 staff members. It’s predicted that the technology will save the firm about $1 million per year.

“The next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas,” President Barack Obama said during his farewell address in 2017. “It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good middle-class jobs obsolete.”

Sales is another major area for AI adoption. There are now examples where AI, using natural language processing software and specific algorithms, is able to spot patterns (in data), to identify new opportunities and provide a level of analysis in just a few seconds.

This can vary greatly. Examples include gaining greater knowledge on customers’ viewing and buying behavior — i.e, what they’re shopping for and when they are most likely to buy it (such as payday).

Another might be identifying the best time to send personalized marketing and promotional materials or newsletters to specific customers, rather than en masse as part of a one-size-fits-all strategy. Or, AI could automatically identify cold customers who haven’t transacted with your company for a while, sending them updates, reminders, or special offers to help get things over the line.

The Future of AI

These are just a handful of examples on how and where AI is already proving significant benefits and opportunities for businesses all over the world.

It’s important to realize these are all current technologies, with this article designed to demonstrate and educate you, as a businessperson, about what is available today, rather the stargazing into the future.

The AI revolution is here and it will — if it doesn’t already — play a key role in how your business will operate and perform in the future. When you decide to get on board is up to you. I’ll leave you with this quote from Gartner: “As vendors exploit AI software capabilities within business suites, enterprise applications, infrastructure support services and the customer experience, your organization will need new or updated strategies. Ready or not, AI is coming to you.”

Michael Garwood is editor of AV Technology Europe.