AI: A Tipping Point for Digital Businesses

Mobile World Congress is like heaven for a tech enthusiast like myself. Every February, many of the world’s most innovative companies gather to launch their latest and greatest gadgets — tablets with 4K displays, futuristic wearable tech, and sleek smartphones thinner than a few quarters stacked together.

But this year, the most important technology at the show won’t be in a single stand at Barcelona’s Fira Gran Via. It’ll be in virtually all of them.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has already become a common thread running through the mobile tech world. It powers our virtual assistants, our recommended playlists on Spotify, the image recognition that suggests tags when we upload a snapshot to social media, and more. But this is just a taste of what’s to come. Soon it will make our smart devices even smarter, and power services like real-time language translation and customer service chatbots.

The shiny new devices at MWC will come and go, but the rise of AI is a true tech revolution. AI will transform the ways we interact with tech on a fundamental level, infinitely expanding its capabilities and the value it provides in our lives. In the business world, it will support better decision-making and enable organizations to operate more efficiently.

But the rise of AI comes at an interesting turning point for businesses. Over the past 10 years, virtually every company has embarked on a digital transformation. But as the new results from PwC’s 10th anniversary Digital IQ survey reveal, this transformation has stagnated:

● In 2017, the average investment in emerging tech was 17.9%, only marginally higher than 16.8% in 2007, despite the radically changed landscape and digital’s importance to business success.

● In 2007, 52% of companies told PwC they had a team dedicated to exploring emerging technology. In 2017, just 33% said the same.

● Just 52% of companies in 2017 rate their Digital IQ as strong/very strong, a sharp drop from the past two years.

With AI-based business transformation on the horizon, you might assume it will face the same fate. But instead, the opposite will be true. AI will be that shot in the arm we need to overcome this sense of stagnation.

In the past decade we’ve greeted new tech that’s been disruptive in every sense of the word — mobile, the IoT, data analytics and more. They’ve all had transformative effects on our productivity and efficiency. But they’ve also been disruptive in the sense that they’ve overturned business models and work styles, forcing us to adapt. And with the pace of innovation continuing to accelerate, we’re in an ongoing struggle to keep up, making it difficult to consistently unlock value from digital investments.

But AI is different. As my colleague Anand Rao explains, it is “everywhere and yet nowhere.” Rather than being a standalone piece of technology, it will underpin every other aspect of digital transformation as it becomes more prevalent. It’s making smart devices smarter. It’s making Big Data more valuable and cloud-based tools more efficient. It’s turning long-held dreams about the IoT and autonomous vehicles into reality. And while it will become more embedded in existing products and technology, it will also disrupt business models and create entirely new ways of working.

Its value goes beyond making technology work harder and better for us. AI will help us overcome one of the biggest barriers for technological change: ourselves. Most technologies, after all, require us to adapt in some way. As humans, we aren’t always adept at changing rapidly. Perhaps counterintuitively, AI will help us to make the experience of using advanced technology more human. For example, with AI we can simply speak to our devices in natural language rather than typing out a search query. They can “remember” what we asked them to do yesterday and predict what is coming next based on past patterns. As all of our virtual interactions become more intuitive, complex tools will become more accessible. This will help to remove barriers to entry for businesses who have resisted adopting next-generation tools that require specialized skills.

As AI aligns tech better with the human experience, it can help us to overcome a barrier to adoption — one that didn’t lie in the devices themselves, but in us as users. But we must also consider whether it might distance us even further. For example, AI is only as powerful as the data it has available, requiring us to have serious conversations about privacy and security. AI comes with its own host of ethical issues that we’ve never needed to consider until now. We’ll also need to consider our comfort with turning over control of our steering wheels, our business processes and our personal technology to intelligent systems.

It’s fascinating that even while our survey shows that overall emerging tech investment is flat and Digital IQ has dropped, AI remains a bright spot. Respondents rated it as one of the most disruptive technologies over the next five years and one of the most worthy of investment.

Looking back on the past 10 years of digital transformation, it’s apparent that we’ve made great progress on aligning business with advanced technology. But it’s also clear that we’re falling a bit short on the other variable in the equation — the human experience. This is resulting in uncertainty and an inability to keep up with what’s next. With AI poised to define the next decade of digital, it will help to fill the gap by making technology more advanced — and more human — at the same time.