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The global economy is poised to finally get back on its feet now that COVID-19 appears to be on the wane (fingers crossed). But while people around the world are hoping everything will soon return to normal, technologies like artificial intelligence are already creating a new business environment that will be distinctly different from the old.
In many cases, AI was a key factor in keeping critical sectors of the economy afloat during the worst of the past year. When the workforce went home, enterprises ramped up deployment of intelligent technologies. That trend shows no signs of slowing, even as hiring starts to tick up and workers return to the office.
High hopes for AI
The AI in a Post-COVID-19 World report by GBSN Research recently found that three-quarters of business leaders have a positive outlook on AI and expect it will not only make processes more efficient but will also help create new products, services, and business models. This is backed up by another report from management solutions provider OneStream, which found that the use of AI tools like machine learning has jumped from about 20% of enterprises in 2020 to nearly 60% in 2021. This is despite the fact that, according to analytics firms FICO and Corinium, upwards of 65% of top executives don’t know exactly how AI works or how it makes decisions.
Still, the impact AI is having on post-pandemic business models is undeniable. In the health care industry, for example, supply chain problems have long been a significant detriment to successful patient outcomes — a fact that was put on stark display with the manufacture and distribution of the various COVID-19 vaccines. Supply chains across all industry sectors are becoming increasingly diverse and digitally driven, making them difficult to coordinate. But as the World Health Organization notes, AI-based management solutions provide end-to-end visibility of these complex structures, allowing organizations to take advantage of over-supplies, streamlined delivery routes, and consumer buying patterns. All of this helps reduce prices and ensure medications and other supplies get to the patients who need them.
The travel industry was hit particularly hard by the pandemic, but companies in the sector have taken the opportunity to upgrade many of their systems and processes with AI-based technology. Time Magazine recently highlighted Alaska Airlines’ use of an AI-driven flight management system that compiles and analyses disparate datasets much more quickly than human operators could. The airline is using this to shorten flight times, minimize delays, and reduce costs and pain points for travelers. It’s worth noting that these tools are used to supplement the activities of human dispatchers, not replace them.
A new buying experience
Some of the most profound changes in the post-pandemic world will likely take place in the retail industry. Even before the virus hit, retail had already undergone a dramatic shift to ecommerce, a transition that only accelerated during lockdown. As Absolutdata CEO Anil Kaul pointed out recently, ecommerce leaders like Amazon and eBay were already up to speed on a wide range of intelligent analytics and management tools before the pandemic, but it now seems like the retail industry, including traditional brick-and-mortar vendors, is adopting the new model.
This is largely due to the COVID-fueled shift in buying habits that most experts say will remain even after it’s safe to mingle in public again. To that end, retail establishments across the board are putting AI to good use on tasks as diverse as identifying more accurate pricing; spotting key promotional opportunities, such as sales and bundling; and even devising more effective in-store displays. Going forward, customers will likely see AI driving new tools, like interactive help kiosks, fully automated return windows, and autonomous restocking bots.
Like any emerging technology, AI will undoubtedly undergo the familiar pattern of myth-driven hype followed by reality-based disillusionment before settling into an extended period of rough equilibrium and then a final stage marked by disruption and replacement by something new. At the moment, AI is seen as the harbinger of faster, cheaper, and less wasteful business processes on the one hand and rampant job losses and a world dominated by evil, uncontrollable robots on the other.
While it’s likely none of these will prove to be entirely true, one thing seems clear: The normal of the post-pandemic, AI-driven economy will be dramatically different from the normal we know today.
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