The pandemic has accelerated the commercial use of artificial intelligence at every level, with companies in some industries pulling ahead of others, according to Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Stanford Digital Economy Lab.
But whenever companies experiment with a new technology that has the potential to transform entire business models, like electricity, it can take decades before changes yield real-world results, Mr. Brynjolfsson said, speaking on Wednesday at The Wall Street Journal Pro AI Executive Forum. The Digital Economy Lab is part of Stanford University’s Institute for Human-Centered AI.
Companies leading the charge in adopting AI tools and platforms are taking time to target spending in the right digital capabilities and talent, he said.
“We’re having a few superstars doing really well,” Mr. Brynjolfsson said. “But the whole reason it takes so long in the first place is that it’s not easy.” He expects to see a “productivity J-curve” as companies figure out how best to deploy AI in their daily operations.
The momentum behind the adoption of AI, which has been building in recent years, got a push during the pandemic as more companies turned to digital tools to try to dampen the economic blow of the crisis, Mr. Brynjolfsson said. That included automating routine tasks or eking out efficiencies through data analytics, among other strategies, he said.
In the early months of the pandemic, companies world-wide began diverting capital spending from information-technology hardware to cloud services, artificial intelligence and other tools that hold the promise of cutting costs, according to research group International Data Corp.
In a June survey of more than 2,300 global companies across a range of industries by consulting firm McKinsey & Co., nearly half said their organizations had adopted AI in at least one business function, led by product or service development, and marketing and sales.
As the pace of vaccinations grows and restrictions are lifted, corporate investing in information technology, including AI and other advanced capabilities, is expected to accelerate, analysts say. Gartner Inc., a research and consulting firm, expects world-wide IT spending to jump 6.2% from 2020, reaching $3.9 trillion by the end of this year.
In the race to adopt AI, Mr. Brynjolfsson said companies in data-rich markets, like the financial sector, have an advantage over those in industries like construction, which lack the kind of data needed to train algorithms in a way that provides business insights.
Along with increased spending, companies also need to reconfigure hiring strategies and internal training programs, to draw the right talent in a tight labor market, he said. “It’s not enough to have great technology.”
Last year, U.S. companies across the economy posted an estimated 3.9 million job ads for tech workers, ranging from entry-level help-desk personnel to senior-level AI architects, IT trade group CompTIA reported on Wednesday. For this year, it forecast a 4.4% increase in data-science and cybersecurity hiring, leading all other job categories.
Ethical issues and legal questions around bias and data privacy, such as the use of facial recognition in criminal investigations, are also likely to temper the pace of AI adoption, Mr. Brynjolfsson said.
“All these changes take time,” he said.
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