Where Executives Think AI Has a Practical Place in Their Businesses

(Editor’s Note, this post originally appeared in the Silicon Valley Business Journal, and was syndicated in 42 Biz Journal publications across the country)

Fueled by the promise of better insights and better decision making via humanlike reasoning, artificial intelligence continues to intrigue the business world, evidenced by steadily increasing investment.

I’ll give you an idea: McKinsey & Co. puts 2016 investment in AI at three times that of 2013 — between $26 billion and $39 billion. Gartner’s 2017 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies also underscores the interest in AI, placing AI technologies like machine learning and cognitive computing at the “peak of expectations.”

Already, thousands of businesses around the world are using AI in some form. Those already using AI at scale or in core processes point to revenue increases, market share growth, or expanded products and services as their main benefits.

Still, skepticism in the business community continues. Many are wondering how and if AI can be practically applied to their own businesses. Is AI just hype? Will its positives outweigh its negatives?

In an effort to pin down exactly what executives think about AI and their plans to implement it (or not), CITE Research polled business executives in the United States and the U.K. The survey found that, ultimately, we’re very early in the AI adoption curve. While AI-related technologies stoke our imaginations, AI’s widespread adoption is held back by some skepticism and a little fear.

Plans to use AI

In theory, AI has the potential to greatly impact business outcomes. For example, by implementing a range of AI technologies like machine learning or natural language processing, businesses can save time and money by automating processes, increasing productivity and operational efficiencies, making faster business decisions based on data analysis, using insight gained from big data to predict customer preferences and offer a superior customer experience, and more.

With this in mind, the CITE Research study found that the majority of respondents (63 percent) plan to use AI in the next two years. Twenty-three percent are unsure if they will use it, while 15 percent will not. Interestingly, U.S. respondents are more likely to deploy AI than their U.K. counterparts (69 percent vs. 57 percent).

Popular AI-related technologies, and how AI will be used

AI-related technologies have expanded to include virtual agents, deep learning, biometrics and neural networks (with one of the best current examples being the iPhone X, which uses a “neural engine” to process images and speech). According to the CITE Research survey, business executives’ current interest in AI is focused on machine learning, voice-capable intelligent digital assistants and natural language processing, all of which were rated “very helpful” in the survey. The group also rated customer service chatbots only as “somewhat helpful.”

With regard to how AI will be used, 54 percent of U.S. respondents plan to use AI to aid in customer communication; 46 percent will use it to plan their workday.

AI concerns

As with many emerging technologies, challenges and concerns exist with AI. Many have pointed out the costliness of implementing AI technologies due to aging IT infrastructures, as well as the lack of AI expert talent available to manage it. To this end, many businesses that see AI as strategic to their long-term business plan are creating a CAIO position, Chief AI Officer, to streamline adoption and implementation of AI technologies. I’m not sure this is a long-lived corporate role, but it certainly exemplifies the new focus.

Data security and loss of control over data have also been huge barriers to AI adoption, and the CITE Research study results support this. More than one-half of those surveyed worry about data security. In fact, 30 percent say it’s their biggest concern about AI. Forty-one percent fear they will lose control over their data, while 40 percent worry that AI technology will introduce errors. I found it intriguing that there was this much concern about security with AI.

Another historically big concern about AI has been its impact on job security. This was the concern that I was expecting to see. However, in the CITE Research study, this concern emerged from only 30 percent of respondents (and only 18 percent said it was a top concern). It should be noted that, in reality, the goal of AI isn’t necessarily to replace an entire job; rather, it’s to complement the job the worker does, making his or her work more efficient and valuable.

Demographics play a part in AI adoption

Not surprisingly, younger generations seem to embrace new technologies more than older generations. The CITE survey underscored this obvious point, showing that those respondents age 34 and younger are more excited about AI technologies. Seventy percent of these respondents indicated their organizations will use AI in the future.

In contrast, 55 percent of those 55 and older are concerned about being overwhelmed by superfluous features, as compared with 24 percent of those ages 18 to 54. (Maybe we can train an AI to program my DVR for me.)

While, for the moment, skepticism about AI continues and tempers widespread adoption, most believe it will take the path of other technology megatrends and eventually disrupt all aspects of business across verticals. We need only look at once-emerging technologies like big data and cloud computing to recognize the path AI will take, the barriers it will overcome and the level of importance businesses will ultimately place on it.