AI is now core curriculum

When we asked executives to name which forces would have the strongest impact on their organizations’ work by 2023, AI comes in just behind the hyperconnectivity of billions of people, machines and devices. 

In 2016, a slightly higher percent of respondents (51%) cited AI as having a strong impact than in our current study (43%) (see Figure 1). Have the last several years dulled the "automagical” shine of AI that gleamed from scores of TED Talks from not so long ago? Perhaps, but we believe the change in sentiment is more indicative of businesses’ realization that AI is not a “magic wand” but more akin to a “Hemi” engine: an extremely powerful

component of a machine that in the hands of amateurs is nothing more than an inert lump of metal but in skilled hands, can transform a car into a race winner. 

The more that companies absorb AI into their business processes – in the way that Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft and a whole host of other leading companies have done – the less they see it as anything out of the ordinary. It becomes, instead, the primary means to strip out cost, speed decisions and open entirely new competitive vistas.

AI takes a leading role

Respondents were asked to rate the impact of the following forces on work by 2023.  (Percent of respondents saying high impact)

Figure 1

Response base: 4,000 (current study); 2,000 (2016 study) Source: Cognizant Center for the Future of Work

Rather than seeing AI as something done in a secret lab by an elevated brain trust, more companies are turning to the technology to do very practical things – things that otherwise would take forever to do (or just wouldn’t get done). This includes activities like accelerating underwriting processes, reducing fraud risk, or increasing patient adherence to a medication regime. AI is now seen as a set of technologies that do the heavy lifting for organizations to meaningfully consume – and act on – vast volumes of continuously growing and always changing data. It’s a way for us to work and see meaning at a scale that’s bigger than ourselves.

Those who rate business analytics as a key driver for the future of work (41% in our study) are likely to get a further boost from applying AI technologies, as will those who cite process automation (40%); after all, why simply “automate” processes when you can optimize them and glean deeper meaning at the same time using AI? Realizing AI-driven outcomes like these will remain a core curriculum as we reconstruct more modern businesses post- COVID, and attempt to “build back better.” 

(See Quick Take for how we define AI in this study.)

Quick Take: No killer robots in sight

Because many businesses have different views of what AI actually is, our study offered a definitional range that encompasses the business uses of AI, including machine learning (ML) and cognitive/deep learning (e.g., predictive maintenance, recommendation engines). We’ve also found it helpful to categorize AI into three subsets: 

Narrow AI (ANI), aka “applied AI” or “weak AI,” focuses around a particular task like navigating traffic, reviewing medical charts, or optimizing stock trading. DeepMind’s AlphaGo, which thrashed professional Go master Lee Sedol, also falls into this category.

General AI (AGI), aka “strong AI,” is the use of machine intelligence that matches human abilities to learn entire processes, such as every task involved with walking into a kitchen to brew a cup of coffee. While such processes are simple enough for most humans to do even in an unfamiliar kitchen, machines have yet to reach this level of sophistication in learning (but the cutting-edge capabilities of GPT-3 appear to come close to AGI).

Super AI is the theoretical outcome of AGI, with unlimited computing power. This is the AI that some worry would quickly overtake human capability and reach levels of intelligence we can’t even comprehend. 

While General AI and Super AI continue to tantalize imaginations, ANI is the type of AI leading to most of the technological and business breakthroughstoday and what we describe in this study. Our references to AI in this report focus on that subset of the technology and align with Cognizant’s Evolutionary AI™ approach to improve decision making and drive impactful business outcomes.