As expected, artificial intelligence (AI) took the center stage in this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, portending what lies ahead for businesses catering to the general public. For the first time in its history, the planet’s largest technology trade show launched an AI Marketplace showcasing innovations in robotics, neural networks, and computer systems that replicate specific capabilities of human intelligence. My colleagues and I were also invited to launch our book Applied AI: A Handbook For Business Leaders onstage.
More than anything else, CES 2018 proves that applied AI has moved well beyond the domain of data scientists, machine learning (ML) experts, and corporate strategists — into the welcoming arms of enraptured consumers. From digital assistants and autonomous vehicles to emotive house bots and intelligent image processors, the future inevitably moves ever closer to an AI-driven economy.
For businesses, this means you either ride the waves of change by embracing AI or sink like a stone clinging to the old ways of doing things. The question is no longer whether you have an AI strategy. Your strongest competitors likely already have one up and running.
Instead, the looming challenge is to —
- Determine whether a turnkey AI solution exists for your business problems/goals; or,
- Identify the right AI-focused partner to help plan and build a custom solution.
Depending on your situation, either can get the ball rolling for your brand and help narrow the lead of early risers in your industry.
Chances are, your business offers something quite different from those in the store shelves of AI service providers. But in case you do (or if your war chest is full to the brim regardless), the smarter approach will be to build an in-house AI team. Certainly, that’s a steeper task given the telling lack of AI specialists and the hundreds of millions tech giants are willing to throw around to hire/train/retain/poach top talent.
If you just need AI to streamline operations, leverage data, sync fragmented tools, cut costs, enhance customer experiences, or generally just deliver better and high-value services, then adopting a plug-and-play AI solution (if one exists) or partnering with an AI-focused advisor would yield significant improvements in efficiencies, profit margins, and topline revenue without incurring the astronomical costs of setting up your own AI team.
What are turnkey AI and MLaaS solutions?
Artificial intelligence (and subfields such as neural networks, deep learning, computer vision, and natural language processing) can be too complicated for many businesses. The learning curve is steep and the required resources to build your own can be very prohibitive. This opens up the market for plug-and-play variants that piggyback on existing software services or platforms that are already familiar to companies and their workforce. We’ve compiled a massive list of over 130 enterprise AI vendors specializing in software for CRM, HR, Sales, Marketing, and many other common business functions. These products either work out of the box or require a few days to a few weeks of integration before they’re up and running.
If you have some technical talent in your organization, you can also built on top of machine-learning-as-a-service (MLaaS) platforms from tech giants like Google Cloud, Amazon, Microsoft, or IBM Watson. These platforms are tightly integrated with their enterprise cloud solutions and offer common technical capabilities such as image recognition, text processing, and speech recognition. While not end-to-end turnkey solutions like the products we linked to above, MLaaS platforms enable companies who already store data with cloud providers to take advantage of built-in machine learning tools rather than build your own from scratch. The downside is that you’ll still need a technical team to customize a solution.
How do you find the right AI/ML development partner?
Applicable only to a small fraction of business challenges, turnkey services and MLaaS platforms simply can’t solve everything. If you’ve finally caught the AI frenzy but your intentions appear to be going nowhere, then it’s time to partner with an AI development service provider. The ideal AI development and consulting agency can look much closer into your operations, dissect your business challenges, and build tailored AI solutions for your organization.
Here are the steps to ensure you’d end up with the right AI development agency.
- Do your homework. Learn as much about artificial intelligence as you can. Take a crash course or read primers online. Be sure to have a top-level understanding of important concepts such as machine learning, neural networks, and natural language processing. Most importantly, learn about key industry players (i.e., AI developers and vendors), their offerings, and the current capabilities of their services.
- Clarify what you want AI to do. Start with a specific problem you want to solve or a specific business objective you want to achieve. Do you want to streamline a set of workflows, crunch troves of fragmented data into actionable insight, dramatically improve customer experiences, increase profit margin, or ramp up sales? Do you want to solve a recurring roadblock in a specific business process? Getting into details about the challenge or objective will help you map out a viable AI adoption plan.
- Snoop around. Get intel on which AI solutions your competitors are adopting. Scan the market for AI vendors focusing on your pain point/business objectives. Search for and evaluate case studies that reflect your own situation.
- Create a short list. Screen agencies based on track record, team credentials, product capabilities, solution fit, success rate, and customer support. Agencies that have been in the AI field longer or have done proven work with large enterprises in your domain are more preferable than companies with sub-par portfolios or have engaged in a different line of business.
- Reach out and make initial contact. Glean additional information by directly engaging the vendors/AI development agencies in your short list. Ask each vendor the following questions:
- Have they solved a business challenge similar to yours?
- Which particular AI method (computer vision, deep learning, natural language processing, adversarial networks, etc.) are they using?
- How much time and training data are needed to improve the solution’s performance?
- What are the risks involved in using their product?
- How should their product’s ROI be measured?
- In what ways are their product features superior to those of competitors?
- Keep a scorecard. Compare the strengths and weaknesses of the vendors you have engaged. Draw up a comprehensive set of factors that will help you approximate the relative value of the AI development agencies in your list. In addition to price, the criteria should include product features, track record, success rate, industry rep, and customer support.
- Make a decision. Based on your scorecard, choose the AI development agency your business will partner with. Take the leap.
AI Adoption: Partner or Perish
As Forrester recently announced, the honeymoon period between AI and enterprises is finally over. The time has come to do the hard work of actually building the AI infrastructure that will keep your business relevant for the foreseeable future.
Of course, investing in AI is serious business. Tech giants spend tens of billions on AI research, deployment and acquisitions. Meanwhile, a Vanson Bourne study released in the last quarter of 2017 found that 80% of enterprises already have some form of AI in production while 30% plan to expand their investments over the next three years. Around 62% expect to hire a Chief AI Officer soon.
Fortunately, you don’t need to raise billions nor recruit new talent to get started. Partnering with the right AI development agency may just be the competitive advantage you need.