AI work often continues despite COVID-19, survey says

In Silico
A survey by Appen found 9% of organizations faced a significant delay in an AI project due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, spending on AI projects has increased overall. (Pixabay/Ceralt)

COVID-19 has taken a devastating toll on lives and economies but not so much on artificial intelligence work going on inside organizations.

A recent survey of 374 business executives and technologists (such as data scientists) found 31% said the pandemic has delayed their AI strategy, while 41% said the virus has actually accelerated the work.  Another 28% in the global sample said there was no impact. 

When asked how much the virus has impacted their organization’s ability to deploy an AI project, the responses were similar:  35% said there were delays (with 9% seeing a significant delay), 36% said projects were accelerated and 29% saw no impact.

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The survey was compiled by Appen, a company that collects and labels data from video and other formats that is used by various customers in their intensive work training AI systems to make decisions.   

“While  uncertainty can often be a time when projects get put on hold, AI is poised to not only withstand the current state but, in many cases, even accelerate,”  Appen said in a report on its findings.

A more general question in the survey asked whether companies are behind in adopting AI, to which 49% said yes they are behind.   Even so, the respondents also said, by 73%, that AI is “critical to the success” of their business.

To that point, Appen found that the number of organizations reporting AI budgets greater than $5 million doubled over a similar survey done a year ago, going from 4% to 8%.   And, organizations with budgets in the $500,000 to $5 million range also doubled over the two surveys, going from 13% in 2019 to 28% in 2020.

“AI is a significant and growing operation across companies of various sizes and industries,” Appen said.

The survey’s other findings revealed that 49% use Microsoft Azure machine learning tools, compared to 36% for Google Cloud, 31% for IBM Watson, 25% for AWS and 17% for Salesforce Einstein.  Compared to the 2019 survey, four times as many respondents reported using such global cloud ML providers and each provider saw a double digit adoption increase “proving that as more companies are moving to scale, they’re looking for solutions that can scale with them,” Appen said.

The survey also probed how organizations feel about developing AI that is socially responsible. “While many enterprises are getting behind responsible AI as a critical component to business success, only 25% said unbiased AI is mission-critical and 50% either didn’t consider this an issue or are just starting to think about it,” Appen said.  “Without a more proactive approach to responsible AI, many companies may see their initiatives flop.”

Appen said there are risks to not considering ethics in AI development such as AI that doesn’t work for a diverse set of users or AI that creates privacy issues when the AI is trained with data that users didn’t consent to being used for training.

A spokeswoman said it was the first time in several years of surveys that Appen introduced questions on bias and ethics. The company plans to ask more in-depth questions on the bias topic in next year’s survey.

Appen’s report on the survey can be downloaded.

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