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Artificial Intelligence Gets Real in 2018

From all indications at CES 2018, artificial intelligence (AI) has quickly become the coolest trend — and buzzword — in consumer technology today. Yet AI has been quietly operating behind the scenes for years. While the likes of professors and scientists have been familiar with AI, the technology has quickly gained the interest of investors and other large companies looking to reap commercial benefits and more.

Fact is, while AI has quickly become omnipresent, the technology is still in its infancy with AIs performing automated tasks and other straight-forward endeavors. AI is also going beyond business processes to engage with consumers through digital assistants — perhaps the most palpable manifestation of AI technology.

Robust Adoption

Although today’s AIs are deemed “narrow” due to their orientation on specific tasks (such as natural language processing or computer vision), business investments behind them are getting fatter each year. A December 2015 study conducted by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch projects that the total AI market (valued at $2 billion in 2015), will grow to $36 billion by 2020, and to $127 billion by 2025. And a July 2017 survey of IT and business decision makers conducted by Teradata shows a robust AI adoption rate. Some 80 percent of respondents reported some form of AI is already in production in their organization, and, not surprisingly, 42 percent said there is room for further implementation across the business.

Optimization through automation is the name of the game when it comes to AI application in commercial and industrial sectors. For example, AI’s ability to automate processes and analyze large data sets in real time is one reason the technology is being applied broadly in retail. On the operational side, AIs are being used to manage inventory across the entire store chain. AIs are also improving the customer experience through predictive analysis for product purchases, therefore personalizing the purchase journey.

Digital Assistants Lead

At the vanguard of AI customer service are digital assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. The capabilities of digital assistants, once limited in performing very specific tasks, have now expanded to interact with the user, other devices and third-party apps through innovation in natural language processing, APIs, machine learning and more. As a result, consumer enthusiasm for digital assistants is reaching elephantine proportions.

Sony's Kazuo Hirai at CES 2018.

For example, digital assistants are percolating in the consumer market via devices like smart speakers. CTA’s January 2018 industry forecast shows unit shipments of smart speakers will top 43.6 million units, a 60 percent gain over 2017 sales of 27.2 million units. Smart speakers were a huge seller during holiday 2017 and, based on the forecast, CTA believes roughly one out of four U.S. households now own at least one smart speaker. The rapid rise of digital assistants in the consumer experience has made support for them table stakes in the industry — across the device landscape and services sector.

Looking a few years down the road, self-driving vehicles and smart cities are technological developments that will be made possible through the “deep learning” by AIs, enabling them to make decisions similar to human intelligence (like a driver, for example).

That said, these AIs will require a new set of human jobs focused on supporting AI systems. Humans in these roles complement the tasks performed by AI systems to ensure the systems are reliable, responsible, and ethical. After all, aren’t two heads (or minds) better than one?

Steve Koenig