AI will come down to earth—and get to work

It may not make a good science fiction film, but AI is ready to automate complex processes, identify trends to create business value, and provide forward-looking intelligence. And that's not the only important trend for 2018: see PwC's seven other predictions about AI in business.

There are plenty of publications promising an AI-powered future that will look like magic: fleets of autonomous cars that never crash or encounter traffic jams, robot doctors that diagnose illness in milliseconds, and smart infrastructure that optimizes flows of people and goods and maintains itself before repairs are ever needed. All that may come—but not in 2018.

Executives think that AI will be crucial for their success: 72% believe it will be the business advantage of the future. The question is: What can it do for me today? And the answer is here.

Augmenting human productivity

If AI sounds far-fetched, what about a tool to perform repetitive white-collar tasks, so managers can spend their time on analysis? How about one that detects fraud and increases supply chain resilience?

This is the value of AI in 2018: it lies not in creating entire new industries (that’s for the next decade), but rather in empowering current employees to add more value to existing enterprises. That empowerment is coming in three main ways:

  • Automating processes too complex for older technologies
  • Identifying trends in historical data to create business value
  • Providing forward-looking intelligence to strengthen human decisions

Value from tedious tasks

Consider how most companies’ finance functions spend a large portion of their time: wading through data coming from ERP, payment processing, business intelligence, and other systems. Many staff members also spend hours each day poring through legal contracts and emails, or performing mundane transactional tasks.

The result is that value-adding analysis is what many finance professionals only do when they have time left over from their other, routine tasks.

Now imagine an AI system scanning all the function’s data, identifying trends and anomalies, performing many transactions automatically, and flagging relevant issues for further attention. Imagine AI also identifying and explaining likely risks and offering data-driven forecasts to support managers’ analysis and decisions.

It may not be as sexy as a smart city, but this kind of practical AI is ready right now. And it’s often “sneaking in through the backdoor.” Enterprise application suites from Salesforce, SAP, Workday, and others are increasingly incorporating AI.


Business problems will open the door to AI

Leaders don’t need to adopt AI for AI’s sake. Instead, when they look for the best solution to a business need, AI will increasingly play a role. Does the organization want to automate billing, general accounting and budgeting, and many compliance functions? How about automating parts of procurement, logistics, and customer care? AI will likely be a part of the solution, whether or not users even perceive it.

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New kinds of ROI measures are needed

Sometimes the best approach to gauge AI’s value is to use the same measures you’d apply to any other business investment: metrics such as increased revenue or reduced costs. But AI’s most powerful benefits are often indirect, so organizations will want to explore other measures of ROI. Automated full-time equivalents can capture how AI is freeing human workers from mundane tasks. Other metrics can show how AI is improving human decision-making and forecasts.

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Anand Rao

Anand Rao

Global & US Artificial Intelligence and US Data & Analytics Leader, PwC US

Chris Curran

Chris Curran

Chief Technologist, New Ventures, PwC US

Michael Shehab

Michael Shehab

Technology and Process Leader, PwC US

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