In the heady and hype-filled world of Artificial Intelligence, it can be hard to separate fact from (science) fiction. We hear of all the ways AI will transform our professional and personal lives, but it seems our lives remain largely untouched by AI outside of the usual suspects like Netflix, Alexa, and driverless cars. Or is that really the case?
Consider just a few of the recent advancements in "everyday AI": intelligent machines working behind the scenes to automate and improve your day, often in ways largely unnoticed. Those firewalls and anti-virus systems protecting you from unsavory elements? Backed by AI algorithms. That smooth corporate Internet connection? Managed and load-balanced by sophisticated learning-based software. The energy-efficient new office space? AI climate and lighting control. The great career boost you got when your company identified you as a "high potential"? AI helped you there too. On the home front, AI helps you shop, communicate, be entertained, and more.
Just about any area you look today uses AI and AI-enabled automation behind the scenes to accomplish a wide variety of operational and service-related tasks, without all the fanfare the media heaps on the Holy Trinity (Microsoft, Google, and Amazon). This "overnight revolution" has been more of a gradual transition, building over the years as cheap hardware, easier to use software, and skilled developers and data scientists all became more prevalent. Companies of increasingly modest means are now able to embed machine learning capabilities into key elements of their solution, and their customers benefit – without needing to invest millions building their own capabilities.
No corner of the corporate space these days is out of bounds. Companies providing solutions in HR, finance, customer support, sales and marketing, facilities, IT, even strategy and software development are increasingly using decision support and automation to improve outcomes for their customers. Microsoft, Salesforce, and Oracle are good examples of companies AI-enabling significant aspects of their existing product portfolio, which collectively reaches a large swath of companies.
Put another way: we’ve been so worried about AI taking over our jobs that we missed them becoming our co-workers. These algorithms sit by our side, nudging us in productive ways and even making many of the simpler decisions we used to make. And in the next few years, these capabilities will permeate even more areas of our work life.
What does this transformation mean for us individually and as organizations? I see three trends taking shape: de-sensitization and realistic expectations, citizen AI scientists, and human-computer symbiosis.
We are becoming increasingly de-sensitized to the concept of AI and resetting our expectations accordingly. Not long ago, AI was mostly met with fear and confusion, complements of a media and entertainment industry that feeds on our fascination with doomsday scenarios. Recent warnings from tech luminaries helped fuel that fire. While a healthy fear still exists around superior general-purpose AI, an increasing number of people see narrow task-based AI as the utility it is rather than a threat. We are also starting to see computers as fallible, a significant shift from the mindset of the past few decades, where perfectly executing procedural machines were the expectation. These shifts have opened the door for people to be more comfortable with AI and automation. They are willing to work with the technology and understand its limitations. In the terms of Gartner’s hype cycle, we have moved out of the "trough of disillusionment" and into the "plateau of productivity".
With this newfound comfort in AI technology comes the rise of citizen AI scientists. Like citizen data scientists, these hobbyists come from many walks of life and sit within different departments of the organization. While they might not be able to build a sophisticated new algorithm, they are adept at monitoring advances, championing the use of AI, and helping select, implement, and train capabilities. These advocates will further the spread the daily use of such technologies.
Finally, as AI and automation becomes more pervasive in our work and home lives, the way we interact with computers will transform. Even with advances in user experience and device interaction, we still spend most of our time with new technology learning how to use it. We conform to its expectations and rules. But as systems get smarter, increasingly they will adapt to us. We won’t have to hunt for information, for example. In tomorrow’s world, it will be served up to us exactly when we need it.
With AI becoming more commonplace, we will start to see the competitive landscape flatten, with most every company benefiting in the same way from advancements in smart machines and automation. Day-to-day operations will be improved for all, and competition will shift to the edges, with more advanced companies innovating AI into their core business models. The savvy organization will take the lessons they’ve learned from everyday AI and find ways to align that technology with their key drivers of growth.
Be mindful of all the ways AI is already helping you and look for further opportunities to integrate it more deeply into your organization. AI’s human co-workers will thank you.
A version of this post appears in the December 2018 issue of Technology First magazine