Seventy-three percent of executives are piloting or adopting AI in one or more business units, according to a survey conducted late last year, in conjunction with the Accenture Technology Vision 2020, our annual guide to the technology trends that we believe will have the greatest impact on businesses over the next three years.
Yet, until recently, AI was mostly being used to enhance automation and execution; its value was primarily viewed in terms of cost reduction and efficiency. Leaders have recognized that by combining the almost limitless capacity of intelligent machines with human originality, flair and oversight, businesses can unlock new products, services, operational models and much more.
COVID-19 as a Change-Agent
Over the past several months, organizations in every sector have scrambled to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and during this time, the value of human-machine collaboration has never been clearer.
In response to the crisis, AI applications have been used to augment and assist human workers across a range of new, short-term use cases. AI-powered chatbots are assisting health workers as they screen and triage patients, algorithms are helping healthcare suppliers reconfigure their supply chains, and AI is even helping in the race to find a vaccine. For example, Insilico Medicine, a Hong Kong-based biotech company, has repurposed its AI platform to help accelerate the development of a COVID-19 drug. The company is now using machine learning to expedite the drug discovery process.
It’s not only in the medical field that AI-machine collaboration is proving its worth. Many businesses are struggling to manage with a reduced workforce and the need to comply with social distancing rules. AI is helping business leaders dream up new solutions to these challenges and enabling companies to become much more flexible in the process.
Acceptance Accelerating Adoption
As more workers are exposed to AI tools and learn how to work effectively with them, any concerns they may have about the technology will subside as and drive further adoption. This is important because, as outlined in a global study in 2019, employee adoption is one of the main barriers to scaling AI in enterprises.
The pandemic may provide the impetus needed to push past this barrier. Over the past few months, AI tools have helped keep people healthy and informed at work. Virtual healthcare assistants and AI-powered thermal cameras for fever detection, for example, are ensuring that people can return to the workplace as safely as possible. Other tools are helping to keep essential businesses running.
Innowatts, a startup that uses AI to manage surging electricity demands, is a case in point. The pandemic has brought significant volatility to energy demand as businesses temporarily shut down operations and employees were sent home. Innowatts helps organizations navigate this volatility through AI-enabled short-term forecasting. The intelligence derived from its AI helps companies make the timely adjustments needed to maintain their operations.
Bringing the Future Forward
The Technology Vision’s pre-pandemic survey of business leaders found that while 79% of respondents believed that collaboration between humans and machines will be critical to innovation in the future, only 37% reported having inclusive design or human-centric design principles in place. If we ran this survey today, I would expect the second number to be much higher.
Workers, governments and the public are seeing AI in the best possible light. Businesses have therefore never had a better opportunity to deploy AI tools. As they do so, they must be sure to design their tools in a human-centric way to ensure that workers remain on board.
Luckily, this has never been easier. Thanks to advances in technologies such as natural language processing and computer vision, AI tools can be completely intuitive for humans to use – as easy, in fact, as working with a human co-worker. Explainable AI, where the decision-making process of machines is laid bare for all to see, will be another important element to ensuring that the good will towards machines won during the pandemic is not lost.
If organizations can get this next stage of the AI journey right and deploy the tools at scale in a way that enables true human-machine collaboration, then the sky is the limit. Once and for all, enterprises can sweep away the constraints that have traditionally held AI back and open whole new possibilities for their company and workers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Michael Biltz leads Accenture’s Technology Vision R&D group and the enterprise's annual technology visioning process. Through Accenture’s Technology Vision, Michael defines Accenture’s perspective on the future of technology beyond the current conversations about the social, cloud, mobility, and big data to focus on how technology will impact the way we work and live. The Technology Vision helps Accenture’s clients filter through the changes in the technology marketplace to understand the changes in technology that will impact them over the next 3-5 years.