Audrey Williams has a message she wants to make clear: Artificial intelligence is real and it's here – and it's impacting businesses across the board.
William, who is Frost - Sullivan's Australia and New Zealand head of research for digital transformation, says the technology has moved beyond hype and is being explored – and embraced – by a diverse range of companies.
“Enterprises need to be looking at AI because there is a trend around the world whereby we are seeing that automation, analytics, robotics and artificial intelligence are changing the ways companies are operating,” William says.
“Today, companies are under a lot of cost pressure and are cutting costs, especially in countries where labour costs are very high.
Among the examples she cites are a large Japanese life insurance company which now uses an IBM Watson AIB system – rather than 34 staff – to calculate medical payouts by reading medical certificates, factoring in length of hospital stay, medical history, surgical proceedures and so on and oncology doctors using AI to help with prescribing treatment for patients.
Across Australia and New Zealand, melanoma surveillance company Molemap is using Watson to help identify whether skin lesions are potentially cancerous – a move that is helps with a skills shortage of dermatologists and also provides a second pair of eyes.
“You can see the application in healthcare is going to be quite diverse,” William says.
But it's not just healthcare being impacted. Universities are using AI and machine learning to better understand student behaviours and patterns and how they can better prepare for future curriculums and the needs of students.
Deakin University, which was one of the first global deployments for AI in the education sector, has described it as one of the most ambitious projects they've undertaken, William says. They're project, which universities around the world are now looking to understand for their own benefits, incorporates the mobile interface, chatbots, AI and predictive analytics.
The complexity of the project is a hallmark of AI rollouts, William says.
“These are all part of very ambitious projects, so this [Deakin's work] is probably only phase one.
“And the think with machine learning is that with all of these deployments it involves many years before the project is fully implemented and the machine becomes smarter over the years as well.
While AI and machine learning are currently featuring predominantly in the enterprise space, William says it's only a matter of time before it permeats to SMB.
She notes that Kiwi cloud accountancy software provider Xero, which provides services to SMEs, launched a chatbot which integrates directly with Facebook Messenger last year.
The chatbot leverages machine learning and historical transactional data to enable businesses to query financial data, including who owes them money, when their next bill is due and how much money is in their bank account, among other things.
“That's a great example of how they are enablign AI today as part of their solution that is going out to SMB organisations,” William says.
But William doesn't believe AI and robots are going to take over the world. Instead, she says AI is freeing up people to focus on more critical parts of the business.
“Like the oncology treatment – it means the assistant who was helping with that before can now be pushed into other critical jobs.
“It's about driving efficiency and freeing people up from more manual and basic processes.
She cites the example of ‘robo-advisors' in the banking and financial services sector.
The robo-advisor provides services to cutomers on the back of machine learning and intelligent platforms which enable them to advise customers on easier topics such as potentially tax, superannuation, or the basics of how to apportion funds or saving.
“But when the conversation needs to become more sophisticated or complex, the the wealth manager or fund manager comes in to advise the client of the next steps to take.
“And it's a process that will only get better over time as the machines and these platforms become more intelligent.
“The more they study, learn and digest, the more intelligent the platforms become.
William says one are of big potential growth for AI is in retail – particularly with Amazon making its play for new markets, including Australia.
“That means retailers now are under tremendous pressure.
“You can have a store presence, you can have an online presence, but retailers will have to reinvent themselves and look at a mobile first, cloud strategy incorporating analytics and artificial intelligence so that when a customer shops online there is a seamless omni-channel epxerience when they enter the store.
Amazon Go, with its checkout free shopping using computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning to enable customers to enter a store and have their shopping purchases logged automatically to their Amazon account, is offering up ‘frictionless shopping'.
But William says they're not the only retailers harnessing AI.
“At this stage it's fair to say the retail industry is seeing a lot of trials and implementations for AI technology.
“In the next 12 to 18 months there will be a lot of tirals around machine learning and AI and cognitive services by retailers and we can definitely see real life deployments after that,” she says.
“AI is going to change the face of retail in a big way.