Artificial Intelligence (AI) has captured the attention of C-suite executives across all industries and is poised to transform businesses in ways we’ve never seen since the impact of computer technology in the late 20th century.
We are already seeing venture capitalists funding AI start-ups at a rapid pace. Technology companies are also moving swiftly to create and capture value in this emerging area. High-profile acquisitions by Google, Apple and Facebook are piquing interest in Artificial Intelligence technologies such as robotics, expert systems, computer vision, speech, gesture and facial recognition. Companies are creating new research labs devoted to innovating with these technologies.
In Africa, AI has a strong role to play. It will initially be most notable in smaller things, like voice searches for data and translation services to cross language barriers, but will become more relevant in numerous other areas, like reducing time and costs of banking and trading. These will be game changers for numerous customer facing industries, but also for industries like agriculture where it will assist in improving crops and food supplies.
The future will be increasingly about harnessing intelligent automation. The South African Revenue Service is a good example of the strides that can be made in this regard – whereas it needed 20,000 people to manually process tax returns and information a decade ago, by utilising e-filing it can retain that workforce, but set them to task in identifying and handling more complex matters, which ensures better outcomes for the fiscus as well as for taxpayers.
Our research papers demonstrate that as AI matures, it can propel economic growth and potentially serve as a powerful remedy for stagnant productivity and labour shortages of recent decades. Our latest Accenture Technology Vision 2017 report reveals that by changing the nature of work and creating a new relationship between man and machine, AI could double annual economic growth rates by 2035.
Decision makers should recognise that Artificial Intelligence isn’t a matter of a single technology or application, but a rich and diverse field. At Accenture, we define it as information systems and applications that can sense, comprehend and act.
Systems that can sense, comprehend and act
Artificial Intelligence systems can be self-learning. They are like bright students who are given educational materials and then can learn by themselves. Artificial Intelligence consists of multiple technologies that enable information systems and applications to sense, comprehend and act. That is, computers are enabled to perceive the world and collect data; analyse and understand the information collected; and make informed decisions.
Artificial Intelligence can also learn from experience and alter their processing and behaviour based on those learnings.
Sense: Consider how a border-control kiosk uses computer vision technologies such as facial recognition to sense characteristics of travellers. Integrated with other technologies such as multispectral image analysis (scanning passports using infrared and ultraviolet light), extensive information databases and matching algorithms, an integrated solution here can improve security by identifying people on unauthorised entry lists or others posing a risk.
Video analytics is another sensing technology that can automate observation and incident detection by video surveillance cameras. Other similar applications can help companies improve physical security at their premises, or they can help retailers count visitors or recognise customers as they enter a store or bank so sales people can provide personalised services.
Comprehend: Artificial Intelligence systems also comprehend through technologies such as natural language processing, inference engines and expert systems. These technologies have a wide range of applications across multiple industries. For example, a medical diagnostic system can help doctors identify diseases and suggest treatments. A doctor interacts with the system by speaking or typing in a native language. The system asks follow-up questions and stores facts in working memory. It then takes the facts of the case, knowledge it has of medicine and infers a solution or treatment.
Finally, the system presents a conclusion or suggestion to the doctor, who uses it as expert input into a final diagnosis and treatment plan.
Act: Artificial Intelligence system acts independently. It can take action within a process, through technologies such as inference engines and expert systems, or it can direct action in the physical world. Consider a widely publicised example of the driverless car which senses the environment, understands the myriad inputs and then steers the car without assistance from a human driver.
Other examples include factory robots that assemble products on the production line, virtual assistants that act by responding to customer or consumer inquiries, and assisted-braking capabilities in cars that sense skids and automatically take action to steer the car safely.
Learn: A distinctive feature of all types of true Artificial Intelligence solutions is their ability, through a technology known as “machine learning,” to adapt their capabilities based on experience, rather than needing to have all the rules hard-coded. For decades, computers have been able to process complex questions and give answers, but applications were rigid and any change required programmatic modifications.
Without doubt, Artificial Intelligence is a game-changer for businesses across every industry. A key is not to become too entranced by any particular technology, as if that technology by itself is the answer. It is vital to think first in terms of types of work, and then consider the business rationale for integrating technologies into a total Artificial Intelligence solution related to that work.
It is important that business continues to engage in the ongoing dialogue about these technologies’ effects on jobs, education and society. Businesses, educators and policy makers will need to work together to assess impacts and take action accordingly. What happens in terms of the social impact of Artificial Intelligence is not up to the technology but to us. The business opportunity of getting it right is too significant to be left to chance.
William Mzimba: Chief Executive of Accenture South Africa and Chairman of Accenture sub-Saharan Africa.
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