Are AI investments dead thanks to COVID-19?

The outlook for the most heralded enterprise technology in recent memory is far from certain.

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In the context of human suffering, worrying about how enterprises will react to a slowing economy should be secondary. But as the economic toll of mandatory shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders mounts, and as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on businesses across a vast spectrum of industries, there are naturally a flurry of questions around the outlook for certain technology categories.

Consider artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML), arguably the most hyped, marketed, and funded enterprise technology categories of the last couple years. Will the pandemic burst the AI/ML bubble as enterprises tighten their belts? Or will layoffs and reduced hours heighten the need for software automation and intelligent process-oriented solutions?

To be sure, no one knows the answers with any degree of certainty. All we really know for sure is that the pandemic has had a crippling effect on global economies. In China, the COVID-19 outbreak has already led to the first economic contraction since the 1970s. Stateside, the Dow Jones dropped nearly 35% in three months. The U.S. economy is clearly headed for a major slowdown, and enterprises worldwide are bracing for recession. 

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I reached out to Ryohei Fujimaki, Ph.D., an expert on AI/ML and the founder and CEO of dotData, which delivers data science automation to the enterprise, for insights about the market outlook for AI/ML in a rapidly changing corporate landscape. 

"Pre COVID-19, there is no doubt that AI/ML were the most important area of the enterprise to invest in," Fujimaki tells me, highlighting a surge of interest in the technologies from CTOs. "A new type of AI/ML user had been rapidly growing, which is business intelligence professionals or "citizen" data scientists looking to add predictive analytics capabilities to their BI stacks. As companies were looking to compete, enabling BI teams to "self-service" with AI was of real interest."

According to Zion Market Research, the global machine learning market topped $1.5B in 2017 and was expected to reach $20.83B in 2024, a CAGR of 44.06% between 2017 and 2024. However, that was before the pandemic. Will companies bee as keen to adopt AI/ML in our new reality?

"We believe that there will be continued interest in AI and machine learning applications in the enterprise sector," says Fujimaki. "The enterprise knows that AI/ML is a key technology to survive regardless of COVID-19. However, under COVID-19 circumstances, it will be hard for enterprises to grow data science teams as they have done or have tried to do. Automation tools like AutoML present a new approach to keep the AI and ML momentum, maximize the productivity of the existing teams and enabling BI teams to utilize AI/ML."

Fujimaki adds that AI is still one of the fastest growing segments in Enterprise IT. While everyone is going to be impacted by the economic effects of COVID-19, it seems likely that AI is going to continue to be an important growth area. As we begin to see the first forecasts and market outlooks of the sector since the pandemic, it's clear many analysts agree. 

Of course, there's a darker side to the AI/ML conversation. Massive layoffs may be part of the reason the technology is still needed. But Fujimaki pushes back against this.

"AI in the enterprise provides the most success when it helps decision-making. In that regard, businesses investing in AI need to think in terms of making employees decision-making more efficient and precise, not in terms of replacing human labor with automation. Used effectively, AI can help accelerate economic growth and recovery and, ultimately, lead to increased demand for labor as companies go back in growth mode."