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Aug 05, 2021

Artificial Intelligence in Our Homes, but Not in Our Businesses...

by Hugues Foltz Executive vice-president

Artificial intelligence

For the past few years, artificial intelligence (AI) has been generating a huge buzz in both the scientific and the business worlds. But apart from the countless promises of upheaval in our business models, is AI really starting to be embedded in our businesses? How can we deal with this technology that is all too often presented as a mysterious and opaque concept? Will all the forecasted changes really happen?

I agree, technologies evolve so quickly that it is difficult to keep up sometimes. The problem is that, in a very subtle way, for the average person, technologies are coming into our homes and imposing themselves in our daily habits. Online shopping is probably the most striking example of this very fast change. You may tell me that it is not AI that is driving this rise in e-commerce. Actually, yes and no. Yes, platforms like Amazon and Shopify could exist without AI. However, if your shopping experience is this personalized and if these big players seem to know your habits better than you do, it’s only because of powerful AI algorithms.

When I say that everything is moving fast, take my father, who was an executive in the Quebec healthcare system, as an example. At the end of his career, he had three secretaries at his service to transcribe his handwritten letters, answer his e-mails, and manage his Outlook calendar. Fortunately, my father retired 10 years ago. He was the perfect example of resistance to change when faced with the introduction of new technologies, but how many executives and administrators like him are still present in our organizations and your businesses?

The reason I’m sharing this anecdote with you is because 10 years ago, he asked me the exact same question that I’m still being asked often today by business executives and administrators: “Is it really going to change that much?” My rather abrasive answer is very clear: It has already changed, and the piece of evidence is in your pocket. There are many more AI algorithms in our cell phones than there are in general in our businesses in Quebec.

The question for me is not whether it will change but rather to understand why we resist it so much and don’t follow the pace of change that is already underway. Don’t get me wrong; my father didn’t ask me this question to justify his lack of interest in technology, but because for him, nothing could replace his employees, especially not a machine!

I don’t want to sound too negative here... AI is gradually starting to integrate into our companies. However, to speed up the process and perhaps to see its full potential, we have to stop considering it as a futuristic technology to be used only if we are technologically advanced. In 2021, AI must be seen as a powerful technology, yes, but a technology like any other.

When used to solve the right problem or optimize the right process, AI becomes nothing less than an additional tool in the digital transformation of your company. Small downside: yes, you need data to “feed” the AI, but don’t see this as a deal breaker. More importantly, don’t think of an AI project as a high-risk research project and definitely not as a basic research project.

The leading experts in the field agree that with the power and maturity of the algorithms available today, our companies are at least 10 years away from exploiting and deploying their capabilities. In 2021, we are doing applied AI, and the technological risks are, of course, fully manageable by experts in the field.

So YES, our business models are and will be greatly transformed. New technologies and AI will have a big role to play in all these changes. Let’s add to that the pandemic, which has also drastically changed our lives and behaviors. It’s safe to say that our world is in a state of upheaval and it will never be the same again.

Every week, I speak with entrepreneurs who tell me that they are unable to meet the demand, either because of a lack of manpower or because the productivity of their facilities does not allow it. To me, the main issue is that many of these companies see only one solution to generating growth: Hire more people. But with the lack of available workers in many areas, you’re quickly back to square one. My recommendation for these companies is simple: Take down the giant sign that says “We’re hiring” and replace it with “We’re innovating” and do it now!