Business leaders are still worrying about artificial intelligence (AI), but with Facebook pushing hard into the metaverse, augmented reality (AR) has also proven a massive concern for corporate chieftains.

That’s according to analytics firm GlobalData. The company defines a theme as any issue that keeps chief executives awake at night. In a thematic survey published in October 2021, GlobalData gauged the business community’s current sentiment towards emerging technologies that kept executives stirring into the early hours.

The research found that AI was the technology perceived as most disruptive in Q3 2021, regaining its position from AR, which, as Verdict previously reported, held the top spot in the previous quarter.

66% of professionals from over 30 industries stated in the poll that AI would deliver either slight or significant disruption to their industry. This was a sharp increase from the previous quarter when 49% said AI would disrupt their industry. It returns AI to the position that it held in Q4 2020 and Q1 2021.

AR has gone in the opposite direction, and now only 48% see the technology as disruptive, down from 70% in Q2 2021.

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The interactive tech, which blends the physical space with digital visualisations, reached wider public knowledge through the Pokémon Go craze in 2016, but also has real business potential. AR tech, for example, is being used for remote collaboration, training, maintenance, customer support and product design.

It’s also seeing large uptake in ecommerce as a utility, both for consumers and brands. Various social giants have merged AR and ecommerce into their social media platforms, offering users the ability to try on products virtually.

The buzz around AR has grown recently thanks to Facebook's expansion into the metaverse, a virtual world where users can share experiences and interact in real-time within simulated scenarios. This is made possible through AR applications and virtual reality (VR) headsets.

Facebook is banking on the digital world enough to have renamed itself as Meta in October. The recent name change came alongside the company's pivot to becoming a metaverse company instead of a social media one (and an increasingly toxic social media brand at that).

Name change or not, it seems insiders may have seen through the AR hype, according to GlobalData's polling.

"The greater variation in perceptions of AI and AR noted in Q3 2021 could be because, like cybersecurity and cloud computing, both have a wide range of applications," explains Rupantar Guha, associate project manager of Thematics at GlobalData. "However, unlike cyber and cloud, deployment of AI and AR is at an early stage."

"Regarding the metaverse, AR and VR are key technologies in this developing mega-theme. VR-based metaverses are arriving in the market (e.g., Facebook's Horizon Workrooms) and AR-based metaverses (e.g., Microsoft Mesh) are also in development.

"It is too early to say which technology will outpace the other in the short run, given that both are in nascent stages of development and the metaverse is still largely conceptual. However, AR's accessibility through web browsers, smartphones, and smart glasses (that are less expensive than VR headsets) could give it an edge over VR in the long run."

In the meantime, it is AI which business bosses are banking on as the emerging technology of choice.

Hope for AI

Of the emerging technologies included in GlobalData’s polls every quarter, perceptions of AI and AR are the most volatile. In the company’s view, this is because confidence in the disruptive potential of the two technologies is fragile and likely to continue to experience variation as more companies implement them.

The majority of the respondent pool said that they felt more positive towards emerging technologies in Q3 2021 than a year ago. At least half of all those polled said they were more positive towards four of the seven technologies that GlobalData enquired about: cybersecurity, AR, AI and 5G.

AR and AI were behind only cybersecurity in positive sentiment change. This indicates that, despite the volatile perceptions of the two technologies regarding the level of disruption they can bring, a majority still felt more favourable than in 2020.

55% of respondents said that AI would live up to all its promises, which is only a small drop from the 57% who said the same in the previous quarter. The continued good performance of AI in this indicator suggests that businesses are hopeful that the technology will ultimately deliver significant benefits.

AI makes business sense

GlobalData predicts the global AI platform market will be worth $52bn within three years. The burgeoning theme is driven by the obvious business benefits of AI.

The tech allows businesses to accelerate digital innovation and development, resulting in increased efficiency, lower operational costs, higher revenues and improved customer experience.

Enterprise AI projects often share three main objectives. One is the automation of business processes as automating routine day-to-day activities and obligations contributes to more efficient use of labour, with workers able to focus their time and energy on higher-value tasks. AI lets businesses also reduce operating costs and cut out errors that come part and parcel with routine processes and tasks in the workplace.

AI can also provide business insights that make sense of vast amounts of data to predict customer preferences and generate high-quality sales leads. Essentially converting information into knowledge, AI can help with everything from providing personalised product recommendations to identifying credit fraud.

Finally, the tech improves customer engagement. AI-driven customer service capabilities such as virtual assistants and chatbots enable businesses to communicate with high volumes of customers every day, something which proved especially useful in pandemic when face-fronting options weren’t possible. The pseudo-human face of AI can provide a more personalised experience that drives growth, reduces costs, and improves retention and overall customer satisfaction.

“Companies must remember, though, that delivering a successful AI project is not easy,” warns GlobalData thematic research director Ed Thomas. “It requires meticulous planning, detailed preparation, and complete buy-in from all parts of the business. It also requires an understanding of the problem that needs solving.

“AI alone will not cure all ills, but it can successfully address specific business challenges.”

Rising AI lifts all boats

Another part of AI’s attraction is that the tech is, arguably, a rising tide lifting the profile of various emerging technologies.

Take the example of AR. AI technologies such as machine learning (ML), conversational platforms and AI chips power most of today’s AR devices and apps.

AR developers use ML to improve the user experience (UX) by continually analysing user activities. Apple’s CoreML and Google’s TensorFlow Lite ML frameworks support ARKit and ARCore, respectively, and allow developers to run ML models to improve object recognition in photos, convert speech to text and enable gesture recognition. Eye tracking and facial recognition, fast becoming standard functions across all AR devices, use ML to improve UX.

Virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa enable the hands-free operation of AR devices meanwhile. This is critical for some use cases, especially in enterprises: for example, doctors using Vuzix’s M400 smart glasses for training and conducting patient rounds remotely during the pandemic. Equipped with hands-free voice support for Skype for Business and Zoom, the glasses help to keep human contact to a minimum with the aid of AI-powered conversation.

"Smart glasses' and headsets' heads-up displays bring visuals into the user's field of view, while voice assistants enable voice-based control of devices and apps," elaborates Guha. "The use of voice in AR devices is limited to specific tasks that add convenience to the user, helping them avoid using hands.

"Voice assistants are used as supporting capabilities such as pulling up apps to view documents and connecting with remote experts in industries such as healthcare, oil & gas, logistics, and manufacturing, among others."

Better, safer connections with AI

Many organisations are also putting their faith in AI to improve their cybersecurity, with the tech providing cover for the continuing cybersecurity skills gap.

AI offers a more proactive defensive approach to discover and analyse the growing landscape for attacks. As GlobalData reports, the reality is that all software is at risk through human error and inadvertent security holes, which attackers can exploit.

With AI, the target is to have more comprehensive, predictive assessments of breach risk that recognise and prioritise the necessary steps to avoid breaches. The concept is enough to have led UK-US cybersec brand Darktrace to make its name and go public. Its Cyber AI Analyst aims to emulate human thought processes and automate tasks to continuously investigate cyber threats at machine speeds. The proprietary software is said to reduce the average time to investigate threats by 92%.

Darktrace was founded by Cambridge University mathematicians and US-UK government cyber intelligence experts, backed by infamous Autonomy founder Mike Lynch – once dubbed “Britain’s Bill Gates”, today a wanted man facing extradition proceedings from the US over the sale of Autonomy to HP in 2011. Darktrace’s original AI tech, the Enterprise Immune System, was supplemented by autonomous response technology, which allowed the system to react to in-progress cyberattacks.

It should be noted though that Darktrace shares recently plunged by 23% over what's seen as a gap "between promise and reality" regarding its products: and the legacy of Lynch and Autonomy hangs over the company. Several executives at Darktrace, including its founder and CEO Poppy Gustafsson, have previously held roles at Autonomy and at Invoke Capital, Lynch's VC fund.

There is also the concept of AIoT, an amalgamation of AI and the Internet of Things (IoT). AIoT involves embedding AI technology into IoT components; combining data collected by connected sensors and actuators with AI allows for reduced latency, increased privacy and real-time intelligence at the edge. It also means that less data needs to be sent to, and stored on, cloud servers.

Apple is one name investing in this nascent field; in January 2020, the tech giant acquired, which offered AI-enabled image recognition tools capable of functioning on low-power devices.

Being a rising tide lifting all boats and even profit margins, it’s no wonder AI is such an obsession for the global business community.

GlobalData polls were conducted online between the first week of July and the fourth week of September 2021, and ran on Verdict, GlobalData’s network of B2B websites. In total, the polls received 2,128 responses distributed unequally between each of the polls.

This article is part of a special series by GlobalData Media on artificial intelligence. Other articles in this series include: