At this year’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions (AMNC) in Tianjin, China, PwC unveiled a report detailing eight significant predictions for the future of artificial intelligence (AI), called 2018 AI Predictions – 8 insights to shape business strategy. No one disputes the potential impact AI will have across a wide range of business sectors, and PwC has drawn on its own research and experience to lay out what it believes the short-term future holds for this exciting and sometimes anxiety-raising technology.
1. AI will impact employers before it impacts employment
Although there are plenty of predictions regarding the way AI will disrupt the jobs market, that challenge will have to be faced by employers before it trickles down to workers. This will be especially apparent in the very near-term.
The challenge for organisations hoping to embrace AI will be that it works best when it brings together data and teams from different disciplines, PwC says. But most businesses have both people and data in discrete silos, not available for agile collaboration. Plus, employees will need to be equipped with at least basic AI skills to work with it effectively. PwC believes the average enterprise isn’t ready for what AI is about to demand of it.
2. AI will come down to earth – and get to work
Although it gets hyped as an earth-shattering development that threatens to turn your world upside down, the truth is likely to be far more prosaic. AI will, as PwC puts it, enter through the backdoor before making its presence felt, being gradually woven into existing applications and processes.
Being able to automate increasingly complex processes and provide forward-looking intelligence will remove a lot of time-consuming, repetitive work from people’s jobs. The two biggest gains here are time and thinking space. Getting rid of some of the things that keep people busy should pave the way for better decision-making and smarter working. However, traditional ROI measures aren’t necessarily configured to record this kind of return and will need to be adapted.
3. AI will answer the big question about data
Whether it was a mainframe or a vacuum cleaner, since its earliest days technology has been sold to us as a wise investment that will deliver much needed efficiencies. Yet rather than freeing up time or opening up new opportunities, many tech investments have come to feel burdensome. PwC notes that this might be about to change thanks to AI, which will be able to get to the heart of the question: Where’s the ROI?
Much of this is down to AI’s ability to cut through a lot of the drudge work or background noise that afflicts IT projects, such as cleaning up data or conducting asset audits. It means a project can start with identifying a business problem and taking steps to solve it. Once data is used to solve one specific problem, PwC says, further data-driven AI solutions become easier, and a virtuous cycle can begin.
4. Functional specialists, not techies, will decide the AI talent race
One example of how AI is shaking up traditional roles and responsibilities will come in the way it uncouples itself from the world of the computer scientist. While the creation of AI engines and algorithms will always be important, for it to truly deliver business value it will need to be directed by domain experts who know what success looks like.
Developing a cohort of subject matter experts and line-of-business managers that have a working knowledge of AI will require upskilling and training, as these employees could soon outstrip AI engineers and computer scientists in terms of their value to the business. They won’t have to be programmers, PwC says. But they will have to understand the basics of data science and data visualization, as well as how AI thinks.
5. Cyberattacks will be more powerful because of AI – but so will cyberdefense
The arms race in cybersecurity is nothing new. But it’s about to enter a more intense phase. Hackers and attackers have more sophisticated tools at their disposal than ever, and AI is only going to add to their armoury. Whether it’s an attack based on intelligent malware, ransomware that learns as it spreads, machine intelligence coordinating global cyberattacks, or advanced data analytics that can customize attacks, PwC says it’s all on its way.
The only hope organizations have of containing these attacks will be to fight AI with AI. Cybersecurity tools based on AI can automate basic processes, including patching software and updating encryption credentials. But they can also adapt in the face of attempted attacks and even start to predict future attacks based on early warning signs.
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6. Opening AI’s black box will become a priority
AI is not the Frankenstein technology it is sometimes depicted as. Despite the convincing and entertaining plots of some works of fiction, where AI goes rogue and tries to bring about the fall of humankind, those are just works of fiction, nothing more. But overcoming some of the concerns, whether they’re valid or not, is going to have to become a priority in order to increase acceptance and adoption of AI. The longer it stays unexplained, the less likely leaders and consumers will be to use it, PwC says.
Getting away from this scenario means pressure will grow to open up the AI ‘black boxes’ and make it explainable. Organizations will therefore need to have frameworks in place to assess business, performance, regulatory, and reputational concerns as they decide the right level of AI transparency.
7. Nations will spar over AI
AI is the new frontier of far-reaching tech innovation. It could be likened to the space race that started in the late 1950s during which the USA and USSR vied for superiority. The expectation is that excellence in AI will deliver huge economic gains. So many governments are working hard to make sure that their countries get a big piece of the pie, PwC says.
Canada, Japan, the UK, Germany, and the UAE all have national AI plans. There are hopes that in the USA a series of tax-reform and deregulation initiatives will give the US AI sector a boost. However, China currently stands head and shoulders above the rest for prioritizing the role of AI in its economic future. According to PwC, China’s efforts are already bearing fruit and may lead to a Sputnik moment, echoing the moment in 1957 when the USSR sent the first working satellite into Earth's orbit.
8. Pressure for responsible AI won’t be on tech companies alone
Fears are expressed in some quarters that AI will be an unrestricted, unregulated intrusion into people’s lives. It’s hard to deny that AI will likely have great swathes of personal data at its disposal, which it could use to form detailed conclusions about individuals. There is, however, a global consensus forming around the responsible use of AI, according to PwC.
In lieu of formal compliance regulations, the burden will fall on organizations to self-regulate, but they will do so as much out of self-interest as a desire to be good corporate citizens. Those who avoid falling foul of data privacy laws, and avoid running the risk of alienating their customers are far more likely to reap the rewards.