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Getting Serious About AI: The Year of the Tipping Point

It’s time to cut through the confusion and get over the hype – approached in a pragmatic way, today’s AI will deliver value to your business, and at a manageable cost, say experts at Earley Information Science roundtable.

Too much of the buzz surrounding artificial intelligence is coming across as noise, confusing many companies about what to do with AI and when. Some are pushing mountains of chips into the pot, betting on complicated projects to solve difficult problems – and typically coming up short. Others are sitting nervously on their hands, not sure where to start but convinced that the entry fee is prohibitive.   

Somewhere in the middle lies the promise of 2018. In recognizing and discounting the hype surrounding AI, companies can become realistic about what it can do, now, to add value to their business. And in building on the platforms that have already been developed by the Googles, Facebooks and Apples of the world, they can avoid the expensive exercise of inventing a rickety new wheel.  

“To the extent that AI projects are more narrowly focused, they are more achievable and provide more tangible benefits,” said Seth Earley, Founder and CEO of Earley Information Science (EIS), a leading consulting firm focused on organizing information for business impact. “When AI is employed in realistic and practical ways, companies can begin to take the steps that will lead them to powerful new capabilities.”   

The steps that are available today – to manufacturers, retailers and service companies – were discussed by a panel of knowledge engineering experts at an Executive Roundtable hosted on Jan. 17 by EIS.

The discussion, “Enterprise Adoption of AI Technology: Looking Ahead to 2018,” was led by Seth Earley and included three EIS partners who work with clients on AI initiatives: Dino Eliopulos, Jeanna Giordano and Jeannine Bartlett, the firm’s Chief Digital Strategist. All three assessed the AI landscape at the start of the new year and identified opportunities to pursue in 2018.   

In looking back at 2017 from a B2B perspective, “my headline is around the value of AI for product management,” said Eliopulos. Every investment that’s made in improving the quality and structure of product data “is an investment that improves the performance of AI.” Even better, those investments turn into a two-way street: “AI can be used to improve and enrich your product information and to support the construction of relationships between products and other products.” 

Which gets you to 2018, he said, “the year in which information architecture and AI meet the Internet of Things – many companies are seeing that as the next level of engagement in their marketplace.” Consumers are looking for the value-added services that transcend the individual product and tap into the ecosystem that the product is part of, a connection that is largely fueled by AI. “We all want our Alexas and Pandoras.” And then there are the industrial applications. Fast-food restaurants, for example, “are instrumenting their cooking and refrigerant devices, and monitoring and building dashboards and benchmarks, restaurant to restaurant, to improve their power footprint.”  

On the consumer side, said Jeannine Bartlett, “the biggest sort of aha moment of 2017” was how fast voice-activated search went from being something of a novelty – Alexa, Siri or speaking to Google – to starting to have a major impact on everybody’s business.

In short, voice-activated search has become a real play in determining who is going to own the customer. Consumer adoption of “voice first engagement” will transform digital marketplace models in 2018, and retailers will scramble to secure a place in the “shopping conversation.” As market leaders invest more in smartphone-enabled conversational commerce and home device platforms, the outcome will likely turn on how well companies tie together “both product and service taxonomies,” either from their own cupboard or through “really tight” mergers and acquisitions (think Amazon and Whole Foods). “When product catalogs and service taxonomies get integrated with voice-activated search,” Bartlett said, “you wind up with some pretty powerful customer-journey scenarios.”  

As for the services sector, said Jeanna Giordano, three trends are worth noting. First, many companies are “starting to take a much more holistic view” of AI. Instead of focusing on the technology itself, they are looking “at how AI opportunities can be brought into play at various touch points and service interactions.” Second, they are recognizing that AI requires “a lot of good data and processes” and that “being really articulate about your knowledge, and having deep understanding of your own data, is critical” in dealing with AI vendors. And third is the possibility of developing new workplace models that view AI as a tool for “augmentation,” rather than just strict automation. “People can have richer opportunities by working in collaboration with some of these technologies,” Giordano said, and in using them to solve business problems.

In that respect, AI is no different from all the other tech advances that have come before it. Despite its powerful potential, it is not going to make the human factor redundant, said Seth Earley. “It’s not about replacement – it’s about putting tools in the hands of humans, and that’s the way it has always been: to improve people’s capabilities and effectiveness and reduce the cognitive load as they engage in whatever their work is.”   

The roundtable featured a real-time survey of the webinar attendees:  

  • Only 17% said that AI is now a crucial part of their offerings. A quarter are testing pilots or proof-of-concept projects, 42% are in “very early” stages, 10% said AI is just a glimmer in leadership’s eye and 6% said it is not even on the horizon.
  • In terms of the projects that are under consideration or being developed, more than a third, or 36%, identify patterns in data (“cognitive insights”), 22% involve chatbots, virtual assistants or product recommendations (“cognitive engagement”) and 11% revolve around robotic process automation (RPA), enabling rote or repeatable processes like data entry.  
  • More than a third, or 37%, said leadership understands AI and is realistic about what it can do, but 23% said their managers have unrealistic expectations, another 23% said they understand AI only on a rudimentary level and 13% said they don’t understand it at all.

Please use these links to access the roundtable and a related article, “Enterprise Adoption of AI.”   

The Earley Executive Roundtable is an educational webinar series focusing on topics of interest in the areas of digital transformation and information science. Each month, EIS leads a lively discussion with a panel of industry experts.

The next roundtable is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 1 p.m. ET, on the topic of “Knowledge Engineering, Knowledge Management, and Chatbots.” To sign up, register here.

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