Artificial intelligence (AI) has certainly been on the crest of a hype wave over the past two years. But there is evidence that the publicity is backed by hard business decisions.
According to analysts at IDC, worldwide spending on AI systems will hit $35.8 billion by the end of 2019, a year-on-year increase of 44 percent. Much of that growth will come from applications of AI in the cloud and online, because of what IDC calls a "natural, evolutionary symbiosis between AI and the internet".
However, parallel to that growth are rising public concerns over a broad range of related issues: privacy, transparency, liability, security, bias, and the unknown workings of so-called ‘black box' solutions.
This is partly due to public worries over the security of their private data on platforms such as Facebook - especially in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Those concerns have hardly been helped by more recent stories, such as the November 2019 news that the Facebook mobile app has been tracking users' faces as they look at their feeds.
At a recent Westminster eForum event on UK AI policy and skills in London, one speaker raised his own concerns about the extent to which our lives are becoming influenced and managed by offshore algorithms, largely written in Silicon Valley and run in Californian data centres, such as Facebook's, Google's, or Amazon's.
These algorithms increasingly make decisions about what we watch and read, based on our previous likes and dislikes, implying that we are being streamed like primary school children into different groups - often without us knowing - in order to sell us advertising.
That speaker was none other than Roger Taylor, Chair of the government's new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. He said, "We now have a media world in which anyone can put something out there and a Californian algorithm decides whether or not to distribute it to every household, or only to certain households, in our country. And there is no mechanism in that process where anybody has any degree of real social accountability."
Despite the UK's Data Protection Act 2018 and Europe's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force in May 2018, nearly half of UK consumers (48 percent) have no idea how brands are using their data, according to a recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM).
As a result, canny enterprises are beginning to recognise that ethics, data protection and consumer rights could be real competitive differentiators in terms of winning users' loyalty and trust.
A personal approach?
Personalisation is part of this particular knot of challenges. While personalising content, such as information feeds, to individual users might be useful or help to create a more direct or loyal relationship between a service and its users, it may screen out other data that might have been of equal interest to that person.
More, personalisation implies underlying trust, privacy, and ethical concerns: clearly a platform is learning about each user, but what does it do with that data? Who is it shared with? And to what end?
As the Internet of Things grows, with greater intelligence, AI, and inference abilities being embedded into smart devices, those fears can only deepen. For example, last year a Consumers Association survey found that one smart TV sent information to 700 different IP addresses in just 15 minutes - invisibly to the user.
The personal enterprise
But what about the use of cloud services and AI within the enterprise itself? A Computing Research survey of 150 IT leaders across every type of medium to large enterprise in the UK, found that access to AI and automation capabilities were either a major or significant motivation for shifting back-office applications into the cloud for 64 percent of respondents. A further 19 percent regarded it as important.
Nearly as many respondents said that AI and automation access had been achieved either extremely or very successfully in the cloud, with a further 25 percent indicating some success.
Gaining customer and employee insights are of similar importance to respondents, according to the survey. Customer insights were cited as major or significant motivations by over 60 percent of IT leaders, with 20 percent indicating some importance. Meanwhile, 57 percent acknowledged a major or significant motivation in gaining employee insights, with 23 percent seeing this as important.
However, when it came to moving back-office functions such as Finance, Accounting, and Human Capital Management (HCM) into the cloud, personalisation was not a massive driving factor for IT leaders, found the Computing survey.
Fifty-eight percent of respondents identified it as either very important or important, but those figures were significantly smaller than the responses for business insights, reliability, customer service, the applications always being up to date, security, or the overall user experience, among other factors.