Wharton’s A.I. expert predicts the future of artificial intelligence in business

Wharton’s A.I. expert predicts the future of artificial intelligence in business

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Kartik Hosanagar has taught a course on the business impact of emerging tech for 17 years at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Lately, interest in the portion of the class that deals with artificial intelligence has been so great that Hosanagar and Wharton last month announced a whole new initiative called Wharton AI for Business.

The project includes a new course on the business implications of A.I. as well as a guest lecture series. The whole thing is backed by a $5 million gift from Tao Zhang and Selina Chin, the Wharton alumni couple who founded the food delivery app Dianping and run the Singapore-based Blue Hill Foundation, respectively.

I spoke to Hosanagar about what he sees happening with A.I. in business, especially in light of the pandemic. He tells me the immediate pressures—both practical and financial—may make it difficult for companies to think more strategically about how to use A.I.

He says companies will be thinking about how to use A.I. to help their employees, many of whom are working from home, be more productive. That may involve things like automating scheduling and I.T. support. And many companies will be looking for ways in which A.I. can save them money. “I think there are going to be a lot of cases of using A.I. for cost cutting and efficiency,” he says. He predicts factory automation and robotics will accelerate.

These efforts, however, are not where the real gains from A.I. lie. The most successful companies, he says, will be those that are able to take a big step back and think about how they can use A.I. to do something far more strategic. “The question is, what can you do uniquely with that technology that everyone else can’t do?”

He uses the example of streaming platforms such as Netflix or Amazon and entertainment companies such as Disney. They face a dilemma because social distancing has disrupted their content creation pipelines: With actors and film crews unable to work in close proximity, production on many shows has had to pause. That may mean a looming gap in new content.

Hosnagar says studios could turn to advanced A.I., similar to the technology used to create deepfakes, to create visually realistic content without actors or film crews. “Those that are able to do this might be able to get more films and TV shows out in a period of scarcity,” he says. “But not every studio can change production the same way.”

Figuring out how best to use A.I. strategically requires a realistic understanding of what your company is actually capable of —not only whether you have the right tech chops, but what your customers want and how this fits with your overall brand and market position.

Much has been written about how Covid-19 may result in further concentration of corporate power. But Hosanagar thinks the pandemic may actually present an opportunity for startups too by removing some of the advantage of having vast amounts of historical data.“With this discontinuity, everyone with those massive datasets has to be cautious,” he says. “It doesn’t totally completely level the playing field, but it does bring us closer.”

Like some other folks I’ve spoken to for this newsletter, Hosanagar thinks the pandemic will accelerate the use of unsupervised learning algorithms, which don’t need big, labelled data sets to train on. He also thinks there is a greater role for reinforcement learning, where A.I. software learns from simulated experience. And he thinks that A.I. systems in the future will have to incorporate a wider diversity of data to become more inclusive of disruptions such as those caused by Covid-19.

As for business strategy, Hosnagar says we are still a long way from A.I. being able to make those kinds of recommendations. “A.I. excels at tasks that are highly repetitive,” he says. “Corporate strategy is not highly repetitive. It is highly creative and there is a lot of projecting out scenarios in situations where there is not a lot of data.” The big decisions that shape the fate of companies will remain in human hands, at least for the foreseeable future.

And with that, here’s the rest of this week’s A.I. news.

Jeremy Kahn