How businesses can use artificial intelligence (AI) to their advantage, perhaps even in a … [+]
Frankly, I was hoping an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm would write this column for me, because who knows more about AI than the mysterious little gremlins that make “machine learning” possible? That, alas, didn’t happen; so I’m on my own.
Like most people in business, I don’t need any convincing that artificial intelligence (for most companies in many areas of their operations) will become a game-changer.
Still, it remains a fluid, if not amorphous, concept in many respects. What, exactly, can we expect AI to do for us that we’re not already doing—or how will it improve what we’re doing by doing it better, faster, cheaper, with greater insight or fewer errors?
As an important article (“Winning With AI”) in the MIT Sloan Management Review put it back in October, “AI can be revolutionary, but executives must act strategically. [And] acting strategically means deciding what not to do.” That’s not as easy as it sounds.
The problem I have with most discussions of artificial intelligence is that they assume the reader or listener already understands the promises and perils of AI. But based on my conversations with a lot of very intelligent people I don’t think that’s always the case.
As Amir Husain, founder and CEO of the Austin, Texas-based machine learning company, SparkCognition, explained to Business News Daily last spring, “Artificial intelligence is kind of the second coming of software. It’s a form of software that makes decisions on its own, that’s able to act even in situations not foreseen by the programmers.”
AI is so ubiquitous we hardly even think about it. As the Business News Daily article pointed out: “Most of us interact with artificial intelligence in some form or another on a daily basis. From the mundane to the breathtaking, artificial intelligence is already disrupting virtually every business process in every industry.”
Examples abound: online searches, spam filters, smart personal assistants, such as Alexa, Echo, Google Home and Siri, the programs that protect our information when we buy (or sell) something online, voice to text programs, smart-auto technologies, programs that automatically sound alarms or shut down operating systems when problems are identified, security alarm systems, even those annoying pop-up ads that follow us throughout the day. To one degree or another, they’re all based on or impacted by AI.
In other words, most of us are far more familiar with AI—intimately so—than we give ourselves credit for.
The business question is (as the Sloan article correctly put it): How can executives exploit the opportunities, manage the risks, and minimize the difficulties associated with AI? Put another way, how can they use it to their advantage, perhaps even in a transformative way, without turning the pursuit of AI advantage into a quixotic quest—keeping in mind that acting strategically involves “deciding what not to do” as well as pushing ahead and taking chances in some areas?
Some suggestions from the MIT Sloan Management Review article:
First: Don’t treat AI initiatives as everyday technology gambits. They’re more important than that. Run them from the C suite and closely coordinate them with other digital transformation efforts.
Second: Be sure to coordinate AI with the company’s overall business strategy. One of the surest ways to come up short—as most AI initiatives do [from 40% to 70%, according to the Sloan article]—is to focus AI narrowly on one set of priorities while the company is equally or more concerned with others. While AI can help companies reduce costs, for example, by identifying waste and inefficiencies, growing the business may be a higher priority.
The Hartford, Conn.-based insurance company, Aetna (now a subsidiary of CVS), for example, has been using AI to prevent fraud and uncover overpayments—typical insurance company concerns. It’s also been using AI to design products and increase customers and customer engagement. In one Medicare-related Aetna product, the article notes, designers used AI to customize benefits, leading to “180% growth in new member acquisition.” More long term, Aetna’s head of analytics, VP Ali Keshavarz, told the authors Aetna’s goal is to use AI to become the first place customers go when they “are thinking about their health.”
Third: This may be obvious to the geeks among us, but perhaps less so to the more technology-challenged: Be sure to “align the production of AI with the consumption of AI.”
Fourth: “Invest in AI talent, data and process change in addition to (and often more so than) AI technology.” Recognize that every successful AI undertaking is the product of a great group of people. While some of this talent should be home grown, you’ll also have to hire from the outside: bring people in to develop and enhance your internal capabilities. That’s a fact of modern business life.
As with everything else in business, all companies are different. Their needs are different. Their available resources (financial, talent, patience) are different. And their goals and expectations should be different.
It’s important to take the time to understand how to maximize the promise and minimize the pitfalls of AI. If you do, you’re more likely to succeed.