Artificial intelligence (AI) is a technology still percolating in the depths of IT departments and the fever dreams of industry pundits, but it may only be a matter of a couple of years that it bursts across many day-to-day business processes.

That is one of the key takeaways from a survey of 835 executives from Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). The survey shows 84% see the use of AI as “essential” to competitiveness, and half see the technology as “transformative.” But for now, it’s still only in widespread use among a handful of practitioners – eight percent of executives use AI mainly as a workhorse for IT departments, mainly to detect security intrusions, user issues and deliver automation.

AI Potential

Looking into the near future, everyone expects a lot out of AI. At least 32% of executives believe that by 2020, AI will be helping to guide their sales, marketing or customer service functions. Another 20% see AI’s greatest potential impact in non-customer facing corporate functions, including finance, strategic planning, corporate development, and HR.

However, the survey’s authors caution, “it’s clear that most companies are still quite unsure where they should be using cognitive technologies. This is the case for even the most advanced users of the technology — the leaders in our survey.”

84% of executives see the use of AI as “essential” to competitiveness, and 50% see the technology as “transformative

The TCS survey report’s authors point to potential examples of AI at work: “AI systems used in finance can spot customers with credit problems before credit is granted. HR departments have huge amounts of digital data today that they could use to identify unhappy, highly productive, highly influential, and other employee types. AI is guiding customer service representatives to more quickly resolve customer problems and anticipate future purchases, quickly and securely reconciling mass overnight transactions for financial institutions.”

Job Disruption and Opportunity

Unfortunately, as feared, there will be some job losses dues to AI. Executives in the study estimate AI will eliminate somewhere between four and seven percent of job roles by 2020.

At the same time, those companies in the TCS survey charging full speed ahead – seeing revenue and cost improvements from AI – expect to also need at least three times as many new jobs in each function by 2020, due to expanded business opportunities.

The survey’s authors identified companies with the greatest revenue and cost improvements from AI as the ‘leaders’ in the sample, while the ‘followers’ are firms with the smallest revenue and cost improvements. Leaders outspent followers by a factor of five (in terms of spending as a percent of company revenue). Leaders generated average revenue increases of 16% from AI initiatives in 2015, versus 2014, whereas laggards saw a modest 5% revenue growth.

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