It's been a strange, uncomfortable year, for AI and most other industries. COVID-19 swept in, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, the global economy in tatters, and millions of people out of work. The full impact of the coronavirus, still raging around the world, has yet to be felt.
That said, it's difficult to precisely gauge the state of AI in 2020. While historical data indicates AI adoption should increase this year, and anecdotal data indicates many enterprises are turning to AI and simple automation to augment a reduced workforce during the pandemic, it's impossible to predict how the coronavirus will affect AI spending and adoption in the long term.
But preliminary information shows that AI adoption is on the rise, despite, and, in some cases, because of the pandemic.
The year of AI
This year "is the year that AI is going to enter the enterprise mainstream adoption," said Jeff Loucks, executive director of The Center for Technology, Media & Telecommunications at Deloitte Services LP.
Deloitte's 2020 edition of its annual "State of AI in the Enterprise" report, released in July, indicates that many enterprises are investing heavily in AI, and many are buying cloud-based AI products instead of building their own.
The technology and consulting company surveyed 2,737 IT and line-of-business executives across nine countries. All of the respondents use some form of AI in their companies.
The survey showed that 53% of the adopters spent more than $20 million over the past year on AI-related technology and talent, with 71% of them expecting to increase spending in the next fiscal year. A majority of adopters believe AI will transform their organization and industry in the next three years.
The survey also found that around 93% of adopters use cloud-based AI services, with far more enterprises buying rather than building AI capabilities.
With cloud-based services, "it's easier to get started," Loucks said. Compared to building a system, cloud-based services are faster to deploy, and are generally cheaper.
As organizations understand AI better, they also see the challenges bias and ethical concerns pose to AI, Loucks said.
Jeff LoucksExecutive director, Deloitte Service LP
Executives are beginning to look at potential threats embodied in AI, including risks associated with cybersecurity, ethics and bias. Without proper oversight, AI models can spit out incorrect data or make major mistakes.
So, organizations have created new roles for data governance in their organizations to help manage those risks, said Beena Ammanath, executive director of the Deloitte AI Institute.
It's important to note that Deloitte conducted the surveys in late 2019, before COVID-19 became a pandemic and heavily disrupted businesses. Still, Ammanath said, AI has helped enterprises tackle the challenges created by the coronavirus, and enterprises need AI and automation more than they ever did before.
While that's especially true in the healthcare industry, which is using AI to help find a vaccine for the coronavirus, many other industries have boosted their use of AI and automation during this time.
Discord, the instant messaging, voice and video communication platform popular with gamers, is an example.
As COVID-19 forced offices to close and kept friends and family apart, people turned to online communications platforms, including Skype, Zoom and Discord, to communicate with co-workers and loved ones.
According to Danny Duong, director of customer experience at Discord, the communication platform saw an influx of demand over the last several months, and with it, an increase in customer service requests.
To handle the requests, Discord stepped up its reliance on Zendesk's Answer Bot, a customer assistant chatbot, that Discord first started testing in beta in 2017.
"Tools like Answer Bot have been integral in helping our users find solutions to their questions in real-time by utilizing our Help Center," Duong said. "While we love to personally answer and field any and all questions, if someone is able to directly find a solution through Answer Bot, that's a huge time saver for not only us but ultimately for our users."
Since the pandemic, Answer Bot has interacted with three times as many Discord users, Duong said.
Discord's case is fairly common. Even as enterprises delay long-term and expensive digital transformations due to budget constraints, many have implemented quick AI and automation projects to help augment their workforce.
Augmenting the workforce
In fact, according to data gathered by workforce management vendor Workforce Logiq, while tech employees have seen a higher level of uncertainty due to the economic climate, they are also in high demand.
"We've definitely seen people that are still seeking that talent" during COVID-19, said Christy Whitehead, chief data scientist and talent economist at Workforce Logiq.
As enterprises focus on building quick, digital systems to make up for employees working from home or reduced workforces, AI and automation can help.
"There are definitely a lot of areas where AI is helping to augment the work that gets done," Whitehead said.
Restaurants and retailers are using AI to better track orders. Banks and mortgage lenders are using chatbots to give customers better service, and large-scale enterprises are turning to automated machine learning tools to augment the work of their data scientists.
Despite the apparent increase in AI and automation, the technology still, for the most part, isn't replacing humans. It's augmenting their work instead, enabling them to get more done by letting AI handle time-consuming or menial tasks.
While evidence points to organizations increasingly taking up AI tools this year, it's unclear if that will continue. Enterprises are just now beginning to feel the full economic impact of COVID-19, which could put a strain on their budgets and limit their ability to undergo major digital transformations.