Non-tech businesses are beginning to use artificial intelligence at scale

Artificial intelligence is spreading beyond the technology sector, with big consequences for companies, workers and consumers, says Alexandra Suich Bass

Sundar Pichai, Google’s boss, has said that AI will have a “more profound” impact than electricity or fire.

.. Bosses of non-tech companies in a broad range of industries are starting to worry that AI could scorch or even incinerate them, and have been buying up promising young tech firms to ensure they do not fall behind. In 2017 firms worldwide spent around $21.8bn on mergers and acquisitions related to AI

.. Around 85% of companies think AI will offer a competitive advantage, but only one in 20 is “extensively” employing it today

..  Chinese firms have an early edge, not least because the government keeps a vast database of faces that can help train facial-recognition algorithms; and privacy is less of a concern than in the West.

..  If they invest huge sums in AI early on, they run the risk of overcommitting themselves or paying large amounts for worthless startups, as many did in the early days of the internet. But if they wait too long, they may leave themselves open to disruption from upstarts, as well as from rivals that were quicker to harness technology.

.. Gurdeep Singh of Microsoft speaks of AI systems as “idiots savants”; they can easily do jobs that humans find mind-boggling, such as detecting tiny flaws in manufactured goods or quickly categorising millions of photos of faces, but have trouble with things that people find easy, such as basic reasoning.

.. In the near future AI will reshape traditional business functions such as finance, HR and customer service

.. But over time it will also disrupt whole industries, for example by powering the rise of autonomous vehicles or the discovery of entirely new drug combinations.

.. many bosses are more interested in the potential cost and labour savings than in the broader opportunities AI might bring

.. Some companies may not actually eliminate existing jobs but use technology to avoid creating new ones.

.. And workers who keep their jobs are more likely to feel spied on by their employers.

.. A longer-term concern is the way AI creates a virtuous circle or “flywheel” effect, allowing companies that embrace it to operate more efficiently, generate more data, improve their services, attract more customers and offer lower prices. That sounds like a good thing, but it could also lead to more corporate concentration and monopoly power—as has already happened in the technology sector.