As part of my research on the year ahead, I embarked on a series, 20.17 Big Ideas for 2017, to ask a number of my favorite award-winning marketing experts, authors, and other thought leaders -- as well as some of Firebrand Group's own digital strategy and branding experts -- to recommend one "Big Idea" that companies can take advantage of to get ahead in 2017.

One of the individuals I was fortunate enough to interview for this series was John Frankel, Principal at ffVC. Frankel, who founded ffVC in 2008 after having been a seed-stage and early-stage investor since the late '90s, has led investments in more than 80 companies, including such success stories as Indiegogo, Plated, and 500px.

Frankel's big idea for 2017: while software might be eating the world, AI is eating software. Here's our conversation:

Fascinating Big Idea - love it. How can the typical company get ahead of the AI curve?

There's a lot of hype around AI right now, and it's easy to get caught up in the flagrant use of buzzwords associated with the space. I can assure you that this space will be overhyped and there will be a lot of smoke and mirrors, but there will also be a lot of reality, and we can't lose sight of that. There are many applications and tools that fall under the umbrella of AI--from machine learning, to natural language processing, neural networks and facial recognition, for instance--so it's up to companies to determine which specific use cases would work best for them. AI is all about making your business more efficient and productive while gaining valuable insights into large data sets.

Depending on whether you have the raw building blocks (like massive troves of data) to begin using AI technology--and want to bulk up your team of engineers and data scientists--or whether you want to hire specialized companies that provide these tools (like chat bot developers), here are a few use cases for companies to get ahead of the curve:

  • Become more efficient and collaborative with chatbots. Consumer-facing companies can utilize chatbots for a number of cases, from hiring and recruiting to customer service. Chatbots can automatically diagnose and resolve issues while facilitating more direct and clear communication, at scale and at lower costs than traditional call centers or troves of recruiters, for example.
  • Automate manual processes. AI can be used to train industrial-grade robots and machines to conduct difficult physical tasks, specifically in industries like manufacturing -- where robot automation is typically conducted by hand coding every single movement of a robot -- by teaching them fundamental modules that can be leveraged to build higher order competencies.
  • Harness unstructured data (that which is not captured/stored in a database). Most companies spend their efforts on structured data; whereas unstructured data represents about 80% of all digital company data. Today we have neural nets and deep learning tools that can identify, utilize, and protect this majority of data.

Is AI becoming a layer that sits atop all existing technologies necessarily a good thing for society, or are there negative implications to be wary of?

AI has been on the cusp of mainstream for over 40 years. For many of those years, it has been perceived broadly as an experimental and incubatory science, and attempts to introduce it to mainstream society did not go so well. So I think there's work to be done to educate consumers and enterprises of the benefits and massive increases in productivity and efficiency that AI can bring--which is not to say that we should not be vigilant of the speed and the direction of AI's progression. A continued focus on researching and understanding the broader technological and ethical components of AI means that we'll continue to see intelligent systems being built that will collaborate with humans and complement our best qualities.

We like to draw comparisons to the ways in which mobile upended technology: reshaping the ways we live, work, interact with one another, and share information. This illustrates how we believe AI can have the same transformative effects in the decades to come. I'd say that's broadly a pretty good thing.

The dark underbelly is that, like any other technology that can be used for good, it can also be used for nefarious purposes. For example, we have to assume that hackers will use AI to massively increase their efficiency of attacks. Open sourcing these tools makes them cheap for all users. This is an arms race, so cybersecurity companies will have to up their game in tandem.

How do you recommend companies stay abreast of the latest innovations in AI? Are there any firms you're paying close attention to?

There are of course the big players doing a lot with AI--from Google to Amazon Web Services, to Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, and Nvidia--some of their projects are visible, open sourced, and very accessible; some of them are kept well under wraps. Increasingly AI is embedded in everyday utilities that we don't even think of them as separate from the underlying applications. We already live in an AI-centric world today, with Google Home, Alexa, Siri, and thousands of other applications.

As investors, we are certainly paying close attention to the emerging players, and our belief in the AI boom being long and sustained was behind our partnership with NYU--the AI NexusLab--which is working closely to support emerging AI startups in spaces such as robotics, medicine, smart shopping, data analysis, and customer service.

Regardless of your specific industry, there's likely already a class of rising startups using AI to reimagine--and hopefully improve and simplify--the work you do every day.


Looking for more Big Ideas for 2017? Access the full ebook here. And here's wishing your company plenty of success at using AI to build a competitive advantage in 2017.

Published on: Jan 11, 2017
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