The use of artificial intelligence in business is showing signs of acceleration. Nearly three-quarters of companies are now using AI (31%) or are exploring the use of AI (43%), according to IBM's "2021 Global AI Adoption Index."
IT professionals responding to the IBM survey cited changing business needs in the wake of the pandemic as a driving factor in the adoption of AI at their companies. Indeed, 43% said their companies have accelerated AI rollouts as a result of the pandemic.
Advances in AI tools have made artificial intelligence more accessible for companies, according to survey respondents. They listed data security, process automation and customer care as top areas where their companies were applying AI. Natural language processing (NLP) is at the forefront of AI adoption, the report found: Over half of businesses are using applications with NLP.
Business leaders, IT managers, executive advisors, analysts and AI experts interviewed for this article said they're not surprised by the expansion of AI in the enterprise. AI can significantly lower costs, increase efficiency and boost productivity as well as create avenues into new products, services and markets, they said.
Here are nine top applications of artificial intelligence in business and the benefits that AI brings. This is followed by a section on industry-specific AI use cases.
1. AI for customer experience, service and support
One of the most common enterprise use cases for AI centers around customer experience, service and support.
"The uses for AI that are really first and foremost in organizations are customer-facing types of things," said Seth Earley, author of The AI-Powered Enterprise and founder and CEO of Earley Information Science.
Chatbots, for example, use both machine learning algorithms and NLP to understand customer requests and respond appropriately. And they do that faster than human workers can and at lower costs.
AI also powers recommendation functions, which use customer data and predictive analytics to suggest products that customers are most likely to need or want and therefore buy.
Intelligent systems can help employees better serve customers, too, drawing on analytics similar to the ones used in chatbots and recommendation engines to give workers suggestions as they tend to customers.
"The system can propose next-best actions, how to take discussions with the customer further and how to present a certain targeted option," explained Alex Linden, an analyst and research vice president with Gartner who specializes in data science, machine learning and advanced algorithms.
2. AI for targeted marketing
Online search providers, online retailers and other internet entities use intelligent systems to understand users and their buying patterns, so they can select advertisements for the specific products that they're most likely to want or need.
"Every advertisement [on the internet] is placed by machines, and it's designed to optimize click-through rates," Linden said.
AI also helps businesses deliver targeted marketing in the real world, too. Some organizations have started combining intelligent technologies, including facial recognition and geospatial software along with analytics, using the technologies to first identify customers and then promote products, services or sales designed to match their personal preferences.
3. Smarter supply chains
Organizations across industries are using AI to improve management of their supply chains. They're using machine learning algorithms to forecast what will be needed when as well as the optimal time to move supplies.
In this use case, AI helps business leaders create more efficient, cost-effective supply chains by minimizing and even possibly eliminating overstocking and the risk of running short on in-demand products.
Gartner, the tech research and advisory firm, predicted that 50% of supply chain organizations will invest in applications that support AI and advanced analytics capabilities between 2020 and 2024.
4. Smarter operations
As developers of business process applications build AI-enabled capabilities into their software products, AI is becoming embedded across the enterprise.
"There is AI in all the functions that support the business, like human resources, finance and legal," said Beena Ammanath, executive director of Deloitte AI Institute. "The [software] itself is using AI, and the team members may be using the tool and might not even know that AI is being used in a way that's enabling their function."
AI, for example, can handle many customer requests; it can route customer calls not just to available workers but to those best suited to handle the specific needs.
Meanwhile, retailers are using AI for intelligent store design, optimized product selection and in-store activities monitoring. Some are using AI to monitor inventory on shelves in various ways, including for the freshness of perishable goods.
AI is also impacting IT operations. For example, some intelligence software applications identify anomalies that indicate hacking activities and ransomware attacks, while other AI-infused solutions offer self-healing capabilities for infrastructure problems.
5. Safer operations
AI is being used by a multitude of industries to improve safety.
Construction companies, utilities, farms, mining interests and other entities working on-site in outside locales or in spacious geographical areas are gathering data from endpoint devices such as cameras, thermometers, motion detectors and weather sensors. Organizations can then feed that data into intelligent systems that identify problematic behaviors, dangerous conditions or business opportunities and can then make recommendations or even take preventative or corrective actions.
Other industries are making similar use of AI-enabled software applications to monitor safety conditions. For example, manufacturers are using AI software and computer vision to monitor workers' behaviors to ensure they're following safety protocols.
Similarly, organizations of all kinds can use AI to process data gathered from on-site IoT ecosystems to monitor facilities or workers. In such cases, the intelligent systems watch for and alert companies to hazardous conditions -- such as distracted driving in delivery trucks.
6. AI-enabled quality control and quality assurance
Manufacturers have been using machine vision, a form of AI, for decades. However, they're now advancing such uses by adding quality control software with deep learning capabilities to improve the speed and accuracy of their quality control functions while keeping costs in check.
These systems are delivering a more precise, and ever-improving, quality assurance function, as deep learning models create their own rules to determine what defines quality.
7. AI for contextual understanding
Businesses are also using AI for contextual understanding. Linden pointed to the insurance industry's use of monitoring technologies to offer safe driving discounts as a case in point. AI is used in processing data about driving behavior to predict whether it is low or high risk. For example, driving 65 miles per hour is safe on a highway but not through an urban neighborhood; intelligence is needed to understand and report when and where fast driving is acceptable or not.
"Classifying the risk is to some extent AI," Linden explained.
AI is used in a similar manner in the emerging area of usage-based prices, he said. Turning again to the insurance industry as an example, he said providers could use AI to customize rates beyond the typical parameters of annual mileage and place of registration by understanding when, how and where -- perhaps even down to street level -- a vehicle is being driven
8. AI for optimization
Optimization is another use case for AI that stretches across industries and business functions. AI-based business applications can use algorithms and modeling to turn data into actionable insights on how organizations can optimize a range of functions and business processes -- from worker schedules to production product pricing.
9. AI and more effective learning
AI's potential impact on education is significant, with many organizations already using or exploring intelligence software to improve how people learn.
"There are so many ways that AI can be used to make learning better," Ammanath said, noting that use of AI in this space is still in its early stages. "This is the one area we will definitely see evolve over the next couple of years."
Ammanath said intelligent tools can be used to customize educational plans to each student's unique learning needs and understanding levels. Businesses, too, can benefit from AI-infused training software to upskill workers.
AI for addressing industry-specific needs
Although many AI applications span industry sectors, other use cases are specific to individual industry needs. Here are some examples:
- Healthcare. The healthcare industry is using artificial intelligence and machine learning products to analyze the vast troves of data collected over recent decades to uncover patterns and insights that humans aren't able to find on their own. Algorithms in diagnostic tools are helping clinicians make more accurate diagnoses earlier in a disease's progression. Other intelligent tools also help clinicians develop more individualized treatment plans designed for maximum efficiency for each unique patient.
- Financial services. The financial services sector uses AI and machine learning for fraud detection and digital and data security, analyzing historical and real-time data to make near-instantaneous decisions about the legitimacy of individual transactions. Financial services firms also use AI for more niche applications, such as wealth management, loan approvals and trading decisions.
- Industrial maintenance. The industrial sector is using AI for predictive machine maintenance, deploying AI to identify the most probable time that equipment will need service and to optimize the scheduling of maintenance work. AI is also used in factories to increase efficiency.
- Transportation. AI is enabling a growing fleet of self-driving vehicles that are becoming smarter as they gain navigation experience. AI is also being used for smarter traffic management operations and transportation logistics.