ORLANDO, Fla.— So what is AI? It is a constellation of technologies—from machine learning to natural language processing—that allows machines to sense, comprehend, act and learn. It transforms the relationship between people and technology, charging our creativity and skills. Companies recognize AI's strategic importance and its impact on their business, yet many are stalled in making it a key enabler for their strategy.
AI promises a new era of disruption and productivity, where human ingenuity is enhanced by speed and precision.
After decades of very high expectations and frustrating disappointments, artificial intelligence is finally starting to deliver real-life benefits to early-adopting companies. Retailers on the digital frontier rely on AI-powered robots to run their warehouses—and even to automatically order stock when inventory runs low. Utilities use AI to forecast electricity demand. Automakers harness the technology in self-driving cars. However, much of the AI adoption outside of the tech sector is at an early, experimental stage.
Early evidence on recent studies conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that AI can deliver real value to companies willing to use it across operations and within their core functions. In their survey, early AI adopters that combine strong digital capability with proactive strategies have higher profit margins and expect the performance gap with other firms to widen in the next three years.
Significant gains are there for the taking. For many companies, this means accelerating the digital-transformation journey. AI is not going to allow companies to leapfrog getting the digital basics right. They will have to get the right digital assets and skills in place to be able to effectively deploy AI.
As always, whenever a great opportunity arises, a great challenge appears along with it. It this case, the big challenge is to keep employees ahead of the change as well, identifying those that are at higher risk of losing their jobs and making sure they receive proper retraining to maximize the potential withheld in automation.
Governments also need to be on top of this evolution in business world, by adopting regulations to encourage fairness without inhibiting innovation. They must work proactively in identifying those jobs that are mostly at risk. Those employees should understand it a wiser approach to develop new skills to work as a team with machines, not resenting or competing against them, and how it works to their benefit.
According to the McKinsey report, companies based in the United States absorbed 66 percent of all external investments into AI companies in 2016, according to our global review; China was second, at 17 percent, and is growing fast. Both countries have grown AI “ecosystems”—clusters of entrepreneurs, financiers, and AI users—and have issued national strategic plans in the past 18 months with significant AI dimensions, in some cases backed up by billions of dollars of AI-funding initiatives. South Korea and the United Kingdom have issued similar strategic plans. Other countries that desire to become significant players in AI would be wise to emulate these leaders.
With AI—as with any new transformative technology—there really is no ideal ready state anymore. Most companies must begin to build AI capabilities into their business as they’re maturing, rather than taking a wait-and-see approach.
Leaders do not get to competitive differentiation by refusing to take a risk or hesitating to transform, they take it, and they continue to LEAD.
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