Artificial Intelligence: What Now?

Artificial intelligence has established itself as a component to many businesses strategies

Recent developments are poised to move AI to center stage, leading to revolutions across businesses around the globe. However, challenges remain, and an uncertain future makes it difficult to predict exactly where and how AI will be most effective. Protiviti and ESI ThoughtLab recently conducted a survey of 300 senior executives across the globe to uncover just how AI is being implemented and what to expect in the coming years.

According to the survey, just 16 percent of businesses report gaining significant value from AI. Over the next two years, however, this number is expected to more than triple, potentially leading to a majority of businesses relying on AI.

Already, businesses are investing heavily, with companies spending an average of 36 million per year, and plans call for an increase in spending by 10 percent. Consumer products organizations and financial services companies are somewhat slow to invest, lagging behind technology companies and healthcare organizations. The geographical center of technological development also seems to be shifting; European and North American companies are lagging behind their counterparts in the Asia-Pacific region. China, in particular, aims to become the leader in AI by 2030, and the Chinese government is investing heavily in AI technology.

Broad Value

Although AI’s role in businesses is currently relatively limited, it’s already having an impact on core business functions. Today’s algorithms provide value in decision-making and planning, leading to swifter time-to-market, improving risk management, and reducing costs. Employees and customers are seeing this change, with AI improving employee engagement and increasing customer retention. Businesses expect to see improvements in financial and strategic performance and better scalability. Sound judgment is core for competitiveness, and AI promises to improve dealing with the large volumes of data companies currently handle. In particular, companies expect to utilize AI in nearly all aspects of risk management, product development, and sales and business management, along with benefits for marketing and customer experience.

Although more traditional forms of machine learning are expected to play a major role, companies are looking forward to the benefits of deep learning. Deep learning is particularly valuable for making sense of both structured and unstructured data, and companies are only expected to collect even more data over the coming years. Another benefit of deep learning is its ability to improve computer vision, which is increasingly being used to recognize images such as customer pictures. Deep learning also holds tremendous value for robotics, potentially bringing advanced automation into increasingly complex fields and letting algorithms deal with exceptions to normal operations. However, the survey points out that managers often fail to fully understand deep learning and its advantages and drawbacks, potentially leading to bias and mistakes. Furthermore, regulators show some reluctance to accept deep learning, especially in the financial services industry and other places where small mistakes can have significant negative effects.

AI promises to improve cybersecurity dramatically, but the technology also opens up new vectors to attacks. Again, regulatory concerns might slow progress, and organizations must ensure they’re properly auditing their use of AI to maintain adequate data security. Critically, companies need to ensure management and other critical employees understand new technology coming online along with potential risks and limitations. Notably, the survey points out that organizations often have less rigorous standards for AI technology compared to other areas of investment, which, when combined with the novelty of contemporary AI uses, causes concern for the technology’s return on investment. CEOs, CIOs, and other non-technology executives have more questions about AI than their technical counterparts, and adoption may be slowed by their reluctance. Critically, universities are not producing sufficient numbers of AI specialists; the report projects a talent war for those able to best implement new technology and increasing salaries for those with appropriate expertise.

Protiviti and ESI ThoughtLab point to some actions companies can take to smooth the transition to AI. Unlike other technologies, AI demands immediate attention; companies can’t risk falling behind their competitors. Furthermore, it’s essential to develop a roadmap promptly and identify what role AI will play throughout the organization, with special attention paid to existing gaps. The plan must be actionable, with leaders identified and initiatives appropriately budgeted. However, it’s worth taking a cautious approach, as investing too heavily in specific applications can lead to poor results due to the still-unclear future of AI’s role in businesses. Critically, companies need to address concerns about AI across all levels. Management often feels intimated by AI, and a bit of education can go a long way toward assuaging fears. Employees should be shown the potential benefits of AI on their day-to-day work, as many worry it’s merely a means to eliminate jobs, and as PepsiCo proved recently, they could be right.