Sebastiaan Vaessen, head of strategy at Naspers warns those business leaders who have only just started thinking of being digital or being mobile-first, are probably already behind the curve – they will need to start thinking about how to become ‘AI-first’.
Vaessen said that artificial intelligence had a major breakthrough in 2016 when Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo computer programme defeated the world GO champion. This achievement, he said, proved that AI is now able to complete complex tasks that would take people years to master.
He said that AI has already mastered a remarkable list of human tasks, ranging from translations to more creative undertakings like writing music and film scripts.
Vaessen outlined the potential and relevance of AI for the world of business. “Many businesses deploy consultants these days to help resolve the most critical and complex business decisions, often at significant cost over several months.
“AI can now do the work of hundreds of the brainiest people in a matter of seconds. At the current pace, AI will quickly establish itself as a critical technology running through every business process.”
The Naspers executive said that CEOs cannot afford to adopt a wait-and-see approach. “A combination of the plummeting cost of computer processing power, increasing availability of data, and democratization of open source machine learning tools, allow any company to become AI-enabled.
“These technologies are evolving so rapidly that you will struggle to catch up if you’re not on the ball already,” he said.
Vaessen said that companies need a deep, defensive moat to fend off competition and develop a sustainable and profitable business. “In recent times, scale and network effects were some of the principal sources of competitive advantage. Intelligence is the next battleground.”
He said that with the application of AI in the business world still nascent, deploying AI now can be a company’s secret weapon for growth. “AI can help outsmart the competition – even competitors with previously considered unbeatable scale and network effects.”
Vaessen again warned that for all its potential, AI does have a dark side. “While AI algorithms perform the programmed tasks they master exponentially better than their human counterparts, they are still prone to gaffes. AI is not flawless and does make mistakes, albeit at a lower frequency than a human,” he said.
For non-critical business tasks, such as advertising, and product recommendations, such mistakes might be considered tolerable. “This can become more problematic, though, as AI becomes more critical to the heart of a business,” he said.
Vaessen said that AI algorithms can be so complex that even engineers struggle to explain the underlying drivers of any given AI decision. “AI is a black box and requires leaps of faith. This can be highly unsettling, but CEOs must accommodate failure as the price of succeeding in the long run. Ultimately, AI is no longer a peripheral technology, but potentially the key to unlocking an organisation’s competitive advantage.”