It’s official: artificial intelligence has arrived. But how will this disruptive technology transform businesses in the near future?

After more than a few false starts, artificial intelligence (AI) is finally here, and it’s powerfully disrupting the way business is done. We don’t need to ask if or when businesses will adopt AI – the question is where and how widely it will be employed.

AI is already a big player in the technology industry. In particular, there is a growing use of AI in IT’s backroom functions like cybersecurity and tech support. A Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) survey of 835 company executives found that nearly half of respondents were using AI to detect and fend off intrusions – the most frequent use of the technology. But a number of other industries are also opting for AI.

Early adopters

In entertainment, companies like Netflix and Amazon are using machine learning to help their movie recommendation engines. Health care has seen myriad applications, including virtual assistants for doctors, apps that can interpret test results and even AI-based spine surgery technology. In the financial sector, AI has been put to work in regulatory compliance and fraud prevention – PayPal uses a combination of its own AI program and human analysts to combat fraud, for example, and HSBC has teamed up with Silicon Valley startup Ayasdi to automate anti-money-laundering investigations.

Worldwide spending on cognitive and AI systems is expected to reach $12.5 billion this year, according to IDC, a whopping increase of 59.3 percent over 2016. Much of this growth is powered by use cases like the examples above. But there’s another area where AI is rapidly being adopted: automated customer service agents, or chatbots as they’re more commonly known.

Customers now expect AI to be used by companies and they are comfortable interacting with the technology (up to a point). Research from HubSpot found that nearly half of people are happy with the idea of buying products from a chatbot. Perhaps more importantly, 40 percent of respondents said they were indifferent about receiving customer support from either a chatbot or human – provided they got the help they needed fast and easily.

Dealing with data

Whether patrolling a computer network for intrusions or trawling through financials for signs of fraud, AI is most often employed to intelligently handle vast amounts of data quickly. “AI is best deployed in companies with significant amounts of data and robust data systems,” says Andrea Walsh, Isentia’s CIO.

Gartner predicts that, in 2018, half a billion users will save two hours a day as a result of AI-powered tools. Every time a business gains efficiencies, it saves money – and that is AI’s chief benefit.

AI’s smarter processing power is also helping companies generate more quality leads on new customers, using IBM’s Watson AI, for example. Finding, contacting and closing new sales is a time and resource-heavy activity. But AI-based sales assistants can tirelessly work on reaching out to people, while intelligently analyzing data on leads. This can then be effectively communicated with point-of-sale staff.

When employees hear the word “efficiency,” they often assume it will lead to lay-offs. While there is no question that some jobs will be replaced by AI programs, the naysayers are largely exaggerating their mass-redundancy predictions.

AI is a data-cruncher, and it is often employed to take care of something that didn’t even exist 30 years ago: big data. When it accomplishes its analysis, a human is still needed to interpret the results, such as in cybersecurity and anti-fraud scenarios. Even in the case of customer service chatbots, these will mostly be applied to routine queries and simple support functions, augmented by human representatives for complex problems. “AI should not stand alone as a technology,” say Walsh.

Enhancing existing infrastructure

As with all industrial revolutions, AI will create jobs even as it replaces them. There are already glaring shortfalls in STEM-trained employees across the world, and that’s likely to continue as the rapid pace of technological transformation outruns educational reforms. But eventually, new generations will be trained and educated to do jobs created by innovative technologies like AI.

Any business can benefit from AI programs, but when it comes to how broadly they adopt AI, companies need to look at how the technology can augment their existing capabilities. Instead of replacing staff, current AI should be used to support them and put their invaluable human minds to the best use, saving tedious, data-crunching work for the machines. For customers, AI needs to be a helpful, timesaving addition to their experience, and companies should never try to create the false impression that a human is doing the work. People are ready for AI; companies need to be too.

 

Andrea Walsh, Isentia's Chief Information Officer