Nikolas Kairinos, Founder and CEO, Soffos explains why in many ways, COVID-19 has offered some vital lessons to businesses.

For one, it has taught business leaders that they must continuously adapt to their surroundings to survive. What is more, it has also emphasised the importance of technology, with readily available and accessible digital solutions offering a lifeline to companies who would have otherwise had no means of survival.

Indeed, one major positive to come out of the pandemic is the increased pace of digital innovation across the private sector. Prior to the pandemic, firms might have regarded the investment of time and resource into new ways of working too difficult or costly. However, with little alternative recourse, businesses of all shapes and sizes have seized the opportunity to undergo long-term digital transformation strategies.

The scramble to get business continuity tools in place has highlighted the critical role that tech plays in helping companies remain competitive. In the months and years ahead, there is no doubt that digital innovation will continue to be a key strategic priority.

What the research tells us

At the beginning of September, marking almost exactly six months since the widespread introduction of social distancing restrictions, Fountech.ai commissioned a survey amongst 430 business leaders to uncover their perceptions of artificial intelligence (AI), and how these have been affected by the pandemic.

Interestingly, the results suggested that COVID-19 is set to trigger greater investment into the sector, with almost half (45 per cent) of businesses saying that they will implement one or more technologies that use AI in the next twelve months. Indeed, since the onset of the pandemic, the majority (55 per cent) of firms have already started exploring how AI could improve their product or service.

However, the research also revealed that there is still a lot of misunderstanding about how AI can be used strategically within business. This is particularly evident across small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Of the businesses polled, 47 per cent of SMEs (those with up to 249 employees) consider AI to be too over-hyped to deliver much value. The same sentiments were not shared by large businesses: just a quarter (26 per cent) of firms with over 250 employees think that the benefits of the technology are exaggerated.

These attitudes reflect the prevalence of AI within the private sector before the inception of the global health crisis. Only 12 per cent of SMEs were using artificial intelligence within their organization pre-COVID; in contrast, such tools were used by 41 per cent of large businesses.

So, what has been standing in the way of SMEs leveraging AI to their advantage? The majority (54 per cent) of SMEs admit that they have an extremely limited understanding of AI and how it can be used. Meanwhile, 13 per cent believe they lack the skills needed in-house to utilise AI effectively. Perhaps the greatest factor, however, is the perceived costs involved: 52 per cent of SMEs think that AI technologies are too expensive for their organization.

Clearly there remains a significant knowledge gap when it comes to business’ understanding of AI, particularly amongst smaller organizations. Many still consider the technology to be over-hyped, expensive, and complicated, but this is simply not the case. Often delivered on a SaaS model, AI tools can in fact be introduced seamlessly and affordably to businesses of all sizes.

Positively, the pandemic has proven to almost every business why they must invest in digital, with SMEs specifically evaluating how new technologies can improve their efficiency. Ultimately, businesses are looking to invest in AI to bolster their bottom line and enable them to ride out the effects of the crisis.

Why AI – and why now?

It is evident from the data that businesses are, overall, becoming more receptive to the idea of introducing AI and automation into their operations. But why has it taken a global pandemic to turn the tides?

Business’ curiosity about the potential of AI has been growing notably over recent years. The onset of the pandemic earlier this year, however, has served to shift business priorities. Now, survival has emerged as the top reason to invest in new technologies, with AI being an obvious starting point.

The shift towards remote working has meant that enterprises around the world are being forced to take a step back and re-examine their existing processes. Sudden changes to working patterns have forced the hands of business leaders to leverage digital tools in an effort to find new ways of maintaining productivity in a virtual setting. As a result, companies are investing more aggressively in powerful cloud-computing technologies and advanced software as they continue to migrate their work and communications online. And ultimately, companies are also looking for ways that AI can save them money.

To that end, the pandemic has accelerated the need for AI, and has also made businesses more willing to invest in solutions that are able to automate complex, time-consuming and resource-intensive tasks. AI, meanwhile, underpins many of the key digital solutions that are enabling firms to continue delivering their services; maintain customer trust; and keep a remote workforce connected – all in a cost-effective manner.

While restrictive company culture has typically stood in the way of digital innovation on this scale, hindrances like excessive bureaucracy and red tape have been cast aside in 2020. The swift and global introduction of lockdowns and restrictions left no time to weigh up the merits and drawbacks of different approaches and oversee the gradual roll-out of digital technologies. Senior executives have had to think on their feet and make smart investments quickly to prevent their businesses from crumbling in the face of adversity.

That said, the increased adoption of AI toolsets will hardly be viewed as a band-aid solution that offers temporary relief during a difficult period. While these solutions were initially needed to manage the immediate transition into the digital landscape, business leaders are also considering how they can use AI to stimulate long-term growth. Fountech.ai’s research indicates that investment in such technologies will increase in the coming year, and indeed most likely well into the future.

For this reason, COVID-19 may very well be the tipping point for AI adoption in the private sector. I look forward to seeing businesses of all sizes, sectors and structures experimenting with toolsets that will reinvent their business and set them up for lasting success.

Nikolas Kairinos is the chief executive officer and founder of Soffos, the AI-powered KnowledgeBot. He also founded Fountech.ai, a company which is driving innovation in the AI sector and helping consumers, businesses and governments understand how this technology is making the world a better place.

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