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Nearly three-quarters of businesses now consider artificial intelligence (AI) critical to their success, and AI continues to grow in importance across companies of various sizes and industries, according to a new report.

And despite turbulent times, more than two-thirds of respondents to Appen Limited’s 2020 State of AI Report do not expect any negative impact from the COVID-19 pandemic on their AI strategies. Nearly half of companies have accelerated their AI strategies, 20% doing so “significantly,” betting their AI projects will have a positive impact on their organization’s resiliency, efficiency, and innovation, according to the annual report.

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Yet almost half (49%) of respondents feel their company is behind in their AI journey, suggesting a critical gap exists between the strategic need and the ability to execute among business leaders and technologists, Appen said.

Surprisingly, respondents are not that leery of AI: The report also found that only 25% of companies said unbiased AI is mission-critical.

“This may be due to the increased C-suite visibility opening up discussions around responsible AI,” the report said. “As more companies deploy AI at a global scale, the need for AI to work for everyone makes data diversity and bias more prominent.”
All 100% of respondents who rolled out their initiatives globally or to their full user base identified ethics, governance, or risk management as a lens used when thinking about AI, the report noted.

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“Increasing investment in AI projects and greater involvement by the C-suite, along with accelerating enterprise adoption in the wake of COVID-19, are clear indicators that AI is coming of age as a core business driver for success,” said Appen CTO Wilson Pang, in a statement. “However, challenges remain. Most companies are still in the early stages. They’re creating their foundations and looking to build solid teams.”

There are several steps organizations need to take to reach the later stages of implementation, according to Pang: They must refine their strategies, pull the right resources together from across the organization, better understand how to acquire high-quality training data, and look for partners that can give them an edge over the competition.

AI visibility, investments remain strong even during the pandemic

One of the main findings of the 2020 survey is that the C-Suite is now far more heavily invested and involved in the development of AI projects. Other key findings:
With this involvement and increased budget, ethics, governance, and risk management initiatives have become important topics for technologists building AI, the report noted.

Organizations are also continuing to invest in AI initiatives, the survey revealed, indicating that businesses are choosing to spend in times of turbulence.

  • Executive visibility and involvement in AI have skyrocketed over 30% year-over-year, with 71% of organizations reporting C-suite involvement into AI projects.
  • More than 23% of companies are investing more than $1 million in AI projects annually, and 8% are spending more than $5 million–double the number over last year.
  • 82% of respondents are utilizing AI within their business.
  • Three out of four organizations reported updating their AI models at least quarterly, signifying a continued focus on the model after deployment.

Data remains the key AI challenge

Training data is the key to successful AI, with three out of four companies updating their models at least quarterly, according to the report. However, 40% of those updating quarterly feel that a lack of data or data management is a challenge.

Global cloud providers gained significant traction as usage of data science and machine learning tools increased from 2019, which may also be due to growing budget and executive oversight, the report found.

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In 2020, four times as many respondents reported using global cloud machine learning providers, identifying all major cloud providers: Microsoft Azure (49%), Google Cloud (36%), IBM Watson (31%), AWS (25%), and Salesforce Einstein (17%). Each of these cloud providers saw double-digit adoption increases in 2020 compared to last year, the report said.

Despite the pandemic and other market changes, businesses are turning to AI as a differentiator, the report concludes.

“Between C-suite visibility gains, growing operations and budgets, as well as added focus on responsible AI, it appears companies are starting to find ways to make AI work in the real world, identifying productive use cases that enable them to scale, and leveraging more and more of the data that’s being produced every day,” the report said. “For everyone else still working to figure out the first steps, it is just a matter of time.”