From Harvard Business Review
For more than 250 years the fundamental drivers of economic growth have been technological innovations. The most important of these are what economists call general-purpose technologies — a category that includes the steam engine, electricity, and the internal combustion engine. Each one catalyzed waves of complementary innovations and opportunities. The internal combustion engine, for example, gave rise to cars, trucks, airplanes, chain saws, and lawnmowers, along with big-box retailers, shopping centers, cross-docking warehouses, new supply chains, and, when you think about it, suburbs. Companies as diverse as Walmart, UPS, and Uber found ways to leverage the technology to create profitable new business models.
The most important general-purpose technology of our era is artificial intelligence, particularly machine learning (ML) — that is, the machine’s ability to keep improving its performance without humans having to explain exactly how to accomplish all the tasks it’s given. Within just the past few years machine learning has become far more effective and widely available. We can now build systems that learn how to perform tasks on their own.
Why is this such a big deal? Two reasons. First, we humans know more than we can tell: We can’t explain exactly how we’re able to do a lot of things — from recognizing a face to making a smart move in the ancient Asian strategy game of Go. Prior to ML, this inability to articulate our own knowledge meant that we couldn’t automate many tasks. Now we can.
Second, ML systems are often excellent learners. They can achieve superhuman performance in a wide range of activities, including detecting fraud and diagnosing disease. Excellent digital learners are being deployed across the economy, and their impact will be profound.
In the sphere of business, AI is poised have a transformational impact, on the scale of earlier general-purpose technologies. Although it is already in use in thousands of companies around the world, most big opportunities have not yet been tapped. The effects of AI will be magnified in the coming decade, as manufacturing, retailing, transportation, finance, health care, law, advertising, insurance, entertainment, education, and virtually every other industry transform their core processes and business models to take advantage of machine learning. The bottleneck now is in management, implementation, and business imagination.
Like so many other new technologies, however, AI has generated lots of unrealistic expectations. We see business plans liberally sprinkled with references to machine learning, neural nets, and other forms of the technology, with little connection to its real capabilities. Simply calling a dating site “AI-powered,” for example, doesn’t make it any more effective, but it might help with fundraising. This article will cut through the noise to describe the real potential of AI, its practical implications, and the barriers to its adoption.
Read the full post at Harvard Business Review.
Erik Brynjolfsson is Director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, Schussel Family Professor of Management Science at the MIT Sloan School, and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Andrew McAfee is the Co-Director of the IDE and a Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management.