Artificial intelligence: Three common misconceptions

Artificial intelligence (AI) holds immense promise for the business community. Its advancement, alongside other critical innovations in the Internet of Things and Big Data, is transforming how we work and live. Its real potential from a business perspective lies in its ability to unlock insight from data to influence smarter decision making. This potential is so significant that Forrester predicts that investment in AI will increase by 300% this year alone.   

However, AI is often misunderstood and even maligned. Popular theories promote the idea that it will take jobs away from humans; that it’s a futuristic phenomenon with no current business relevance; and that it’s near exclusively manifested in the form of robots. These concerns and confusions couldn’t be more wrong. 

To begin with, AI is easily confused with automation. Anyone interested in future technology needs to improve their understanding of both AI and automation. A good place to start is learning how to distinguish between the two.   

Automation is the use of software, and even hardware, to automate routine tasks. AI, on the other hand, is the ability of machines to replicate human behaviours and thought patterns, and get smarter in the process. It’s important to realise that while an artificially intelligent machine can learn and adapt its operations as it receives new information, it can’t replace humans completely. Instead it acts as an asset, not a threat.   

The best way for companies to fully understand the real potential of AI is to dispel some common misconceptions, starting with the following three.   

AI is still a distant reality   

A prevalent misconception about AI is that it’s the technology of the far future – and will be brought to life predominantly in the form of robots. Books, TV shows, and movies have done a good job of painting this picture, but the truth is that AI is so much more than just robotics. It’s also far closer to being a reality than most of us may think.   

Consider how the proliferation of automation has already changed our business and personal lives. Routine, mundane tasks are handled swiftly by software applications and task bots. This has ushered in a new world of work in which professionals are able to focus their time and effort on more high value business tasks, such as strengthening customer relationships, pursuing expansion into new markets, and making new hires. 

Given the current pervasiveness of automation, the widespread use of AI seems to be just around the corner, especially since the application of AI doesn’t require a robot body to be effective. When robots do become widely available, traditional businesses won’t even be their primary users. They’ll very likely be far more popular among general consumers and industrial manufacturers.   

In addition to robotics, there are several other forms of AI that overlap and intersect with each other, all presenting exciting new possibilities for businesses. Examples include data mining and analysis; machine learning, which enables machines to teach themselves without any help from human programmers; natural language processing (NLP), which enables a machine to understand human speech as it is spoken; and digital image processing, used to analyse and interpret pictures and photographs.   

These other forms of AI are progressing all the time. For example, Google recently announced that its NLP technology is almost perfect, recognising 19 out of every 20 spoken words, while Gartner estimates that by 2020, 30% of all internet search requests will be done using speech recognition technology.   

AI won’t impact the workplace 

Another misconception about AI is that it’s only relevant for IT teams and data scientists. The truth is, many of us have already incorporated AI into our lives and don’t even know it. Siri, Amazon Alexa, and Google Home are all examples of intelligent personal assistants with NLP capabilities that have reached the mass market, while other technologies that we benefit from daily – without even thinking about them – are also being enhanced by AI. Email spam filters, for example, are improving all the time thanks to machine learning algorithms.   

Business of all shapes and sizes can benefit from AI and enjoy increased efficiency and productivity. A survey from Narrative Science revealed that almost half (48.5%) of businesses use AI to collect the data they need to make better business decisions; 13.6% use it to automate their communications; and 6.1% have eliminated time-consuming manual and repetitive tasks thanks to AI.

A business certainly doesn’t need unlimited resources and mega budgets to afford AI. Not only is it cost-effective technology, it also won’t disrupt the business workflow. There’s no need to redesign the entire company’s IT infrastructure or overhaul it overnight to accommodate AI. With a good strategy in place to manage the implementation process, incremental changes can be made steadily over time that will benefit the entire business.   

Of course, the whole organisation needs to embrace new technology fully from the get-go, or not at all. Sitting on the fence will cause issues with adoption, integration, and application, and create difficulties very quickly.    

AI will take away our jobs    

Artificially intelligent machines will replace humans in some areas of work, but certainly not all of them. AI will gain prominence in roles that involve lots of repetitive work like reporting, schedule management, and data entry. However, sectors like recruitment, healthcare, and consulting, for example, will always need a personal touch. AI does not absolve businesses of the need to maintain customer relationships.   

These relationships are built on quintessentially human feelings of empathy, trust, and understanding, which can’t be replicated by AI. What AI can do, and do very well, is provide client-facing professionals with insights to help them deliver a superior personal service. 

Innovation will always transform the workplace, creating new roles in the process. As AI will eliminate some jobs, it will create others to guide the technology with human expertise. We will undoubtedly see an increase in job vacancies that specifically deal with managing artificial intelligence technologies, including software engineers, analysts, researchers and project managers. No matter how smart the machines become, businesses will still rely on human intelligence to harness the power of AI and deliver results.    

Peter Linas, international managing director, Bullhorn 

Image Credit: Razum / Shutterstock