Global Business AI Adoption Flat in 2020, But Growth Expected to Rebound: IBM Survey
IBM THINK 2021 -- With the COVID-19 pandemic raging around the world in 2020, the global adoption rate among businesses for AI technologies stayed flat. But fueled by a growing need for help and insights from a wide range of AI capabilities today, the business adoption rate for AI is expected to pick up throughout 2021 as the effects of the pandemic recede and some kind of normalcy begins to return to the world.
That’s the conclusion of a new “Global AI Adoption Index 2021” report from IBM’s Institute for Business Value and the IBM Watson business unit that includes input on AI plans and challenges from some 5,501 business decision-makers in 15 markets around the world. The report was released May 11 (Tuesday) as part of IBM’s Think 2021 virtual conference. The 13-page report, which was conducted by market research firm Morning Consult for IBM, found that about one-third of the respondents reported that their companies are using AI, while 43 percent said their companies accelerated their rollouts of the technology due to the pandemic.
Respondents from larger businesses said they are almost 70 percent more likely to use AI as part of their operations than are smaller businesses, while more than 34 percent of global IT pros say their companies are not working on any AI projects at all.
In AI spending, 31 percent of the respondents identified data security as the category where they are allocating their largest AI investments for 2021, followed by 25 percent for automation of processes and 25 percent for customer care.
An increasingly important factor for the respondents is the trustworthiness of AI, with 90 percent saying that having the ability to explain how the AI they are using arrived at the decisions that are being made is critical.
Yet despite the growth and promise of AI technologies, 39 percent of the respondents said that one of the most persistent challenges for AI continues to be the limited expertise and knowledge in the field among potential employees.
“The ongoing presence of barriers like limited AI expertise or knowledge, increasing data complexity and data silos, and lack of tools/platforms for developing AI models across markets and industries highlight the need for continued focus on addressing skills and solutions gaps,” Seth Dobrin, IBM’s global chief AI officer, told EnterpriseAI. “In the near term, automation is a key technology allowing businesses to overcome the perceived skills gap to working with AI. New tools are available today that help businesses automate many of the steps towards managing their increasingly complex data environments, as well as preparing that data for use training AI models.”
Also notable from the survey’s data is the increase in the use of AI during the pandemic, said Dobrin.
“When people went through the pandemic, the first thing they invested in was resiliency and making sure people could work remotely,” he said. “The survey revealed that while AI adoption was flat last year, we are poised for a major uptick in AI investments as companies emerge from the pandemic. People were pausing because they were squeezing ten years of digital transformation into two years.”
With those efforts now less urgent, AI will return to being more of a direct focus, he said. “AI looks to be starting a second wave of adoption and we expect businesses to emerge smarter and focus on using AI to save costs, create new efficiencies in business and improve the experiences of customers, employees and other constituents.”
The survey also shows the significant interest businesses have in creating and providing trustworthy and explainable AI for their operations and customers, said Dobrin. “The results show 91 percent of businesses using AI today say their ability to explain how it arrived at a decision is critical, and 86 percent agree that consumers are more likely to choose the services of a company that offers transparency and an ethical framework on how its data and AI models are built, managed and used.”
But while the data shows that global businesses are now acutely aware of the importance of having trustworthy AI, more than half of the respondents cite significant barriers in getting there – including lack of available skills, inflexible governance tools, biased data and more, he said.
“It’s clear that while there are tools and frameworks in the market to help build more responsible AI, there is still work to be done helping businesses develop a holistic approach to AI governance that brings together tools, solutions, practices, and people to govern AI responsibly across its lifecycle,” said Dobrin.
Analysts Weigh In On the IBM Survey
Karl Freund, the founder and principal analyst for machine learning, HPC and AI with Cambrian AI Research, said the results of the IBM survey, including that larger businesses are almost 70 percent more likely to use AI as part of their operations than smaller businesses, shouldn’t be too worrisome at this point.
“We are in the top of the second inning of enterprise AI use,” said Freund. It’s the same with the survey’s finding that found more than 34 percent of global IT pros saying their companies are not working on any AI projects yet, he added.
“This does not surprise me,” said Freund. “Many will use AI transparently, and not even know that their Microsoft Office or other applications are embedding AI in their apps to automate and optimize their operations.”
What is more alarming today for American businesses and global enterprises in general “is the dramatic lead that China has built in the deployment of AI versus the USA and Europe, with 50 percent of Chinese respondents indicating they have deployed AI, versus only 30 percent in the USA and Italy,” said Freund. “The Chinese government is investing heavily in developing AI skills in the country’s universities. The West will fall further behind unless our governments wake up and make similar investments in our future.”
Another analyst, Dan Olds, the chief research officer for Intersect360 Research, told EnterpriseAI that one challenge that also persists when it comes to AI is that “many organizations still have a somewhat hazy idea of where and how to use AI in their business, but they ‘know’ they have to have it.”
The skills gap that exists today “has created a short-term vacuum that won’t exist over the medium-long term,” said Olds. “Several things will happen to fill this space. First, outside experts and consultants will become more widely available, which will allow some organizations to bridge the gap between what they want to do with AI and what they can’t do with their current staffing. Also, we’re going to see some businesses try to move too quickly and without proper preparation into AI and many are going to scale back their plans to a more reasonable pace when they suffer some costly setbacks.”
Already, evidence is being seen of more students heading into AI-related educational programs, he said, where they will be joined by seasoned professionals who will re-tool themselves for AI careers. “Over time, and probably less time than we think, this will provide an adequately skilled pool of AI job candidates.”
Olds said he wasn’t surprised by the survey’s finding that 31 percent of the respondents said they will allocate more money to data security as part of their AI strategies in the future.
“I’m gratified to see this,” said Olds. “AI can really help companies improve their data security. In today’s world, the risks from cyberattacks, be it a ransomware scheme or a hack to gather identity data, is increasing at a frightening rate. I’m glad that companies see this risk and that a significant percentage of them are making it the number one priority for AI.”
The IBM Global AI Adoption Index 2021 survey data includes viewpoints on the deployment of AI from 5,501 respondents in China (500), France (500), Germany (500), India (500), Italy (500), Latin America (1,000 across Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Peru), Singapore (500), Spain (500), the United Kingdom (500) and the United States (501). The polling was conducted online through Morning Consult’s proprietary network of online providers in April 2021. All respondents were required to have significant insight or input into their firm’s IT decision-making, according to the survey’s organizers.