AI (artificial intelligence) has swept into the public psyche as a deeply loaded concept. Embroiled in hype, excitement and fear, it remains awareness-rich and understanding-poor.
Some of this resonates in its path from dramatised sci-fi despots. As with chief antagonist HAL 9000 in Space Odyssey or dystopian sci-fi action film I, Robot, what many understand about AI rests on a fictionalised caricature. It is a realisation of our deepest fears about what we have created eventually ruling us.
While there is a widely held fear that AI will replace humans, the reality is that today's AI and machine learning technologies can and do greatly augment human capabilities. AI broadly refers to systems that change behaviours without being explicitly programmed, based on data collected, usage analysis and other observations.
Sometimes used interchangeably, there are subtle differences between AI and machine learning technologies. A field of computer science, AI attempts to build machines capable of intelligent behaviour. Machine learning is the science of getting computers to act without being explicitly programmed. AI researchers build the smart machines, then machine learning experts make them truly intelligent.
You might be exposed to AI and machine learning technologies on a daily basis. These include virtual personal assistants such as Siri and Google Now, purchase prediction on sites like Amazon, and recommendation services on Spotify and Netflix. These are just the visible tips of the AI iceberg though. If you venture far enough down the rabbit hole you find the potential for sentient robots almost indistinguishable in appearance from humans and ‘nanobots' implanted in our brains enabling us to access information and archive our thoughts.
The immediate, and perhaps more palatable, future of AI is modest though. The ointment for the AI sceptics is the realisation that machines simply do some things better and faster than humans. Once trained, the combination of machines and humans can accomplish more together than separately.
AI may also present the biggest gold rush for the technology industry in recent memory. AI has accelerated in hype and moulded corporate strategies in the process. In January 2016, the term "artificial intelligence" was not in the top 100 search terms on gartner.com. By May 2017, the term ranked at No. 7, indicating the popularity of the topic and interest in understanding how AI can form part of a digital business strategy.
This market hype and growing interest comes in tandem with the Gartner prediction that by 2020, AI technologies will be virtually pervasive in almost every new software product and service. AI will also become a top five investment priority for more than 30 per cent of CIOs.
Channel relevance of AI
So how can the channel exploit this AI opportunity? Even for end-users who are attempting to define an AI strategy, most have not moved this beyond its embryonic stage. This enables resellers to spark an AI conversation to assist them in developing these strategies and obtaining executive buy-in. Having this ‘ground-floor' entry relationship with end-users sets resellers up for a lengthy client relationship on AI, especially as the technology develops and matures in various directions. Most end-users who would like to integrate AI capabilities want to do so with their existing enterprise applications. This provides the opportunity for resellers to hand-hold current clients, all the while eyeing new clients keen for an AI-savvy reseller by their side.
Some resellers will be better placed to exploit these AI opportunities than others. While almost every industry vertical is actively exploring how to use AI, some are leading the way in adopting it. For financial services, the industry is looking towards fraud detection and high frequency trading, telcos have self-optimising networks, retail is using customer tracking and recommendations, while the automotive industry is using robotic process automation and asset tracking. Resellers playing in these verticals should be looking to expand their AI competencies.
As for the initial general IT areas where AI is being applied, there are strong elements of intrusion detection, infrastructure management, cost optimisation, network optimisation and perhaps most tellingly for security resellers, in cybersecurity too. For those security resellers, AI presents the opportunity to protect the systems of end-users as they impliment AI. New technology breeds fresh security concerns and security resellers are well-placed to assist on AI.
Much of the fulfilment of these opportunities lies in the premise that resellers have the AI expertise to exploit them. This bends the issue towards the education of the channel itself, which will partly hinge on vendor support. If the major players like Microsoft and IBM wish to progress their AI hype beyond just that, they will need to provide education for channel partners in the most detailed and accessible terms possible.
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