Looking at my analyst barometer, if 2016 was all about digital, then 2017 is all about artificial intelligence. You know something big is happening when scholars, analysts, CEO hot shots and doom mongers talk it up/talk it down all over news feeds and media. Some of the commentary on AI is Elon Musk scary; some is Stephen Hawking cautionary. But there’s no doubt that the message has cut through: Artificial intelligence is super-hot in enterprise work and for all things innovation.

We’re finding artificial intelligence crop up more and more in conversations with clients. I recommend getting a handle on it by watching our latest Snapshot Event, live from the Nordics (and I doff my hat to the Swedes for limiting the entire session to one hour). The session walks through AI from three perspectives: the academic view, the business view and the practitioner view (ours), and it’s well worth the watch.

Straight off, we heard how AI and automation differ. Automation is safe, contained and rather prosaic compared with its edgier/sexier AI brother. Automation is pre-programmed, static and rule-based (it does what it says on the label), whereas AI is self-learning, dynamic and unpredictable (who knows what you’ll get back because it’s not predictable).

Talking Heads and Mannequins

One particular presentation caught my eye from a local company called Furhat Robotics. The company, which focuses on “social AI,” has developed a range of talking heads that mimic people, like you know, talking? On-stage, the talking head – which co-presented with a Furhat representative –went all Martin Luther King on its bemused Swedish audience with its “I have a dream” speech, which made me smile (check it out).

Talking heads or mannequins aren’t that new — there’s a famous hotel in Tokyo (where else?) that checks in guests and distributes room passes from what’s really a truncated mannequin with built-in Siri. What Furhat has done, though, is put social intelligence at the core of its applications so they can detect vocal tone, pitch, movements, etc. to assess whether a person/customer/user is inquisitive, friendly, smiling or about to lose it, Travis Bickle style. According to the presenter, the company has made inroads with Honda, Merck and Disney, while a couple of schools in the Stockholm area have begun pilots to create “study buddies” for pupils.

More than a Novelty

So the talking head is fun, and if I squint my eyes I can see it being used in shopping, education and healthcare. However, as the panel attested, there is a serious shift happening in artificial intelligence much more rapidly than expected. Healthcare is moving particularly fast, with IBM Watson and an array of AI initiatives under Google Alphabet pushing hard to improve patient outcomes by driving intelligence from the personal health data available from increasing varieties of feeds (fitness wearables, sensors, personal apps like MinDoktor’s, which presented at the Snapshot event).

Perhaps the reason for this fast progress is that we’ve reached a degree of (digital) maturity among our economies and societies. We all recognize that value increasingly resides in the blurring line between the virtual and the physical — software is indeed eating the world.

But I also wonder whether AI is a coping mechanism to deal with the explosion of sensor data – on us as individuals, on the processes that touch the products and services we make and consume, on the value chains our companies and industries operate within. Perhaps the real issue is this: Artificial intelligence is forcing itself upon us for the simple reason that we’re generating way more data than our 20th-century systems and processes can keep up with. Maybe without it, we just can’t process any more data, while the relentless demand for new products, new services, mass customization and next-generation experiences shows no sign of abating.

P.S. Check out our recently minted book What to Do When Machines Do Everything, which is spot-on if, like me, you’re monitoring the analyst barometer. The upshot: Don’t worry about AI and what might happen in the next 20 years; rather, focus on what you can make happen in the next 20 months.  The book tells you how.

Euan Davis

Euan Davis

Euan Davis leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work in EMEA. A respected speaker and thinker, Euan has guided many Fortune... Read more