Trying to establish which New Zealand industries will benefit from artificial intelligence (AI) is a bit like wondering which businesses benefitted from the invention of electricity.
That's the word from Qrious CEO Nathalie Morris who says all the "hype" about AI is now turning into significant, measurable influence on companies' performance.
Qrious helps New Zealand organisations with data strategy and optimisation, analytics, insights, artificial intelligence and data-driven marketing – and Morris says trends from overseas are being mirrored here.
Forbes magazine, in a study of AI in enterprise in the US published late last year, said 82 per cent of AI early adopters were seeing a positive return on investment from production-level projects.
"I think things will soon be at a similar level here," says Morris, adding that those companies investing in AI were experiencing another trend noted by Forbes – that AI is of "critical strategic importance" and can widen the lead over competitors.
"Up until now, what we have tended to hear about AI has been accompanied by hype," says Morris. "It's all been about robots, avatars, virtual assistants, autonomous cars – all a bit like a Will Smith movie [Smith starred in a 2004 movie, I, Robot, involving robots preparing to wrest power from humans].
"There's also been a lot of hype about people being machine-replaced when the likelihood is that we will be machine-enhanced."
An AI news aggregator website, mc.ai, had carried predictions that, while 1.8m jobs would be lost as a result of the AI industry by 2020, 2.3m would be created by that same industry in the same period.
The future is already here, says Morris, quoting a BBC report last year that banks are using AI to detect fraud and predict changes in the stock markets; insurance companies are using it to produce policy quotes and assess claims; machines with the ability to identify images are helping doctors spot disease; air traffic controllers employ AI to keep people safe in air and on the ground and it is helping firms make decisions.
It's that last point that excites Morris: "We are getting to the point now where, because of the increasing maturity of AI, there are wider applications and a wider range of business opportunities.
"In the past it has been larger organisations most able to use it – but the ability to use machines or AI software is now becoming applicable to smaller companies too. A lot of organisations are starting to see the value of building AI into a wide range of business operations.
"It will be a significant change across the board in the end – trying to predict which businesses will benefit from AI is a bit like asking what businesses benefitted from electricity; in the end, they all did. "
Morris defines AI as tasks being performed by machines or software programmes and says New Zealand businesses are using it to understand customers better, developing products and services more relevant to those customers from AI data.
Enterprise AI goes even further, weaving AI into the core of an organisation and into its data strategy. It is used to find and develop innovative products, processes and services.
The proliferation of data was also an incentive for adoption – with so much data currently being generated that it is physically impossible for it all to be managed and analysed by humans, making AI essential.
"New Zealand companies are beginning to use AI to analyse and interpret large volumes of data – from which recommendations are made to help drive that business."
An example was a call centre, where AI could be used to gather data from customers: "It's very hard in a call centre to gain good insights into why people are calling, what they really want and how they might be better served. Now we can use AI which analyses people's words and speech and their sentiments."
It was that use of machines or software to interpret human emotions that had caused much of the hype, Morris says, but which is especially useful in situations "where we need a much wider and stronger picture of customers to address the problems they are having."
That said, Morris adds that it is "really important that AI builds trust with people and has a strong degree of auditability into how it is being used – especially when there are expectations that Al will be able to interpret things like sentiment."
While AI will continue to drive the development of chatbots and improving the customer experience, Morris says we will also see more AI methodologies embedded in the heart of enterprises to optimise business processes, enhance products and make better business decisions.
"As with the early years of cloud, the path was murky and value unclear. AI is currently in a similar early stage," she says. "As the technology continues to mature, and the early adopters prove value and streak ahead, I think we'll see greater levels of comfort and more widespread adoption."
For more information visit: www.qrious.co.nz