In spite of headwinds from the pandemic, organizations are devoting increased time, attention, and budget to their AI strategies. That’s the takeaway from Appen’s State of the AI and Machine Learning 2020 survey, which found that among 374 directors, product managers, engineers, IT staff, data analysts, and data scientists at companies with over 500 employees, 75% believe AI is critical to their business. Perhaps more revealingly, 8% report that their employer’s budget is greater than $5 million, double the percentage who said so last year.

While recent layoffs by DataRobot, Textio, Yonder, Kodiak Robotics, Zoox, Cruise, and other AI and machine learning startups might suggest otherwise, the coronavirus has increasingly forced tech giants to rely on automation for day-to-day operations. YouTube has begun to lean more on AI to moderate videos during the pandemic since many of its human reviewers remain at home to limit the virus’ spread. For similar reasons, Facebook and Twitter have expanded the use of their automated tools to identify offensive material — with varying degrees of success.

Appen’s report reflects the new paradigm. About 82% of respondents said they’re leveraging AI within their business. Moreover, while 37% claimed their employer had allocated less than $500,000 to AI initiatives this year (down from 83% in 2019), 28% said the share was between $500,000 and $5 million (up from 13%).

The findings agree with a survey recently conducted by IDC, which estimated the number of AI jobs globally could increase by as much as 16% in 2020 (reaching 969,000), driven by stronger demand for AI workers as companies contend with the impact of the pandemic. (IDC expects AI spending in 2020 to reach a high-end estimate of $50.7 billion, up 32% from last year.) Separately, LinkedIn reported that AI jobs posted directly on its platform increased 8.3% during the 10 weeks after the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., when normalized against overall job postings.

When asked what impact the health crisis might have on their AI strategies, 70% of businesses responding to Appen’s survey said the pandemic will have no impact or will accelerate those strategies. But they admit to roadblocks. While three out of four organizations report updating their AI models at least once a quarter, 40% told Appen a lack of data or data management remains an impediment to success. Here, 25% blame a dearth of technical resources or qualified people, while 10% cited little to no executive buy-in and 6% pointed to a lack of technical tools.

Problematically, only 25% of respondents told Appen they consider unbiased AI critical to their mission, with a full 50% saying they didn’t consider biased AI an issue or were just starting to think about it. On the other hand, 100% of respondents who rolled out their initiatives globally or to their entire user base identified ethics, governance, or risk management as lenses for thinking about AI.

“The gap between business leaders and technologists continues, despite their alignment being instrumental in building a strong AI infrastructure,” wrote Appen in the report. “Business leaders and technologists are often not on the same page when it comes to core problems, budget allocation, and where they are at with their AI initiatives … [N]early half of [all] those who responded feel their company is behind in their AI journey, suggesting a critical gap exists between the strategic need and the ability to execute.”


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