Human beings and robots working together used to be the stuff of science fiction. But the future is here and artificial intelligence (AI) – the development of software and computer systems to carry out tasks which once required human intelligence – is the buzzword on everyone’s lips.
From driverless cars and crop harvesters to sophisticated voice recognition technology in call centres and GPS systems, AI is slated to continue upending the way human beings around the globe live, work and play.
Locally and internationally, AI is certainly set to transform the business landscape. For Australian businesses, working out how to incorporate AI into their operations – and bat off the threats posed by more nimble competitors who are ahead of the technology adoption curve – is the $64 million question.
Investing in AI – time to play catch-up?
Australian businesses are lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of AI investment, according to research released by IBM owned consultancy Bluewolf in October 2017.
Just 33 per cent of Australian businesses that are currently investing in AI expected to increase their spending on the technology over the next 12 months, according to the research. The equivalent figure globally was 77 per cent.
More than four in five Australian businesses were yet to invest in AI to enhance self-service capabilities, or to make their jobs easier, the research found. Globally, the equivalent figures were 65 per cent and 59 per cent, respectively.
Bluewolf Australia managing director Aniqa Tariq told the publication that while Australia was behind on AI uptake, this was likely to change, “given that the competitive pressure of staying still is becoming more of a concern as innovative new companies, both local and global, enter the market.”
Consumers are increasingly demanding ‘high quality interactions’ with companies; an imperative which will prompt investment in AI-enhanced systems that can help deliver such experiences.
The talent shortfall and what it means
Accessing the skills and expertise needed to undertake significant AI initiatives and projects may pose an ongoing challenge for Australian organisations. Research conducted in late 2016 by CEB, a high-tech research firm now owned by Gartner, indicated Australia had an AI-related talent pool of just 3370 workers, most of whom are located in Sydney.
By contrast, the US had 41,820 workers, the UK had 11,640, and Canada had 7060. “Demand is outstripping supply – this has significant implications for organisations,” CEB senior director Aaron McEwan says. Demand for AI skills increased by 50 per cent in 2016, according to CEB’s research.
“AI is one of those areas our members want to know more and more about,” McEwan says. “We’re at an inflection point where it’s becoming really, really important for organisations. Part of what’s driving that is not just the demand for pure tech skills but the increasing digitisation of all roles. Every person’s job is becoming more tech oriented and that’s affecting growth.”
Increasingly, companies will face a choice: of look abroad for talent – possibly a problematic strategy given recent moves to crack down on the issuing of visas to skilled overseas workers – or build capability from within.
The answer is unlikely to be as straightforward as simply hiring more tech graduates, according to McEwan. While graduates may have the ‘hard’ tech skills required, they don’t necessarily possess the business experience necessary to apply those tech skills to solving organisational problems, McEwan says.
Employers that want to ensure their access to talent may need to instigate internal training programs to plug the skills gap. But while upskilling current employees may represent a partial solution; some individuals may lack the underlying capabilities needed to make the transition.
AI will continue to transform the way organisations operate, in 2018 and into the future, and Australian companies increasingly face the choice between adoption of the technology – and relegation to the ranks of the uncompetitive. In this rapidly evolving context, being equipped with the knowledge and skills to succeed in a technology augmented world has never been more important.
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