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Smart leaders think artificial intelligence

Only one in five Norwegian business leaders thinks their business will have introduced systems based on artificial intelligence by 2020, according to a recent survey carried out by EVRY. Three factors suggest that progress in this area will be faster than they think.


The first factor is that cognitive systems are developing very quickly in terms of their functionality and quality. This is being driven by better access to extensive high-quality data sets, which are being made available via the internet.

In 2005 Google achieved pioneering results with software that could translate texts from Arabic and Chinese into English. The technology involved was not as new as it seemed: the core algorithm had been developed 17 years previously, but the bottleneck had been access to texts for it to practice on. In 2005 Google was in a position to compile a data set containing more than 1.8 billion text symbols from the internet. It was like pouring petrol on a fire.

In 2011 IBM’s Watson supercomputer beat two previous winners of the TV quiz show Jeopardy hands-down in the very human field of general knowledge. The algorithm used on Jeopardy was not particularly new either, and was already 20 years old, having been published as early as 1991. What had, however, happened prior to its appearance on the show was that the algorithm had been fed a dataset consisting of over 8.6 million documents from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Wikiquote and Project Gutenberg.

Smart algorithms are becoming even smarter thanks to communications technology and ever-increasing processing power, while access to enormous amounts of data is improving the quality of what these algorithms generate. It is beyond doubt that the quality of, for example, translation services, voice recognition/activation and image analysis will increase significantly over the next few years. We are seeing the same developments in areas such as the biosciences, physics and medicine.

The second factor is that artificial intelligence is already at full speed in some existing applications. All the large software manufacturers are investing enormous sums on developing cognitive functions. IBM’s Watson, Google’s Deep Mind, Amazon’s Echo, Microsoft’s Oxford and Apple’s Siri are much talked-about, high-profile, multi-billion dollar initiatives, but they only represent the tip of the iceberg. The consulting company Deloitte thinks 80 of the 100-largest software manufacturers in the world will have integrated cognitive functions into existing software as early as this year. Deloitte also thinks that the proportion will increase to 95% as we approach 2020.

The third factor is that artificial intelligence is by its nature much easier to access than previous technological breakthroughs. Businesses do not need to install supercomputers in their basements. Cognitive systems, smart algorithms and relevant datasets are cloud services as easily accessible now as Facebook and Gmail. Small and large businesses alike can already subscribe to and explore the opportunities offered by IBM’s Watson. This again shows how important the internet and communications technology are for the speed of artificial intelligence’s development.

The factor that is most limiting the uptake of cognitive systems is no longer their functionality or accessibility or the technology required, but clear ideas and strategies for how the technology can be applied. With regard to business leaders’ digital expertise, what is needed to start with is for leaders to have an overall interest in and understanding of artificial intelligence, and an ability to implement processes and measures to explore how this technology can be used to enhance the ability of their business to compete.

Norwegian and Swedish business leaders are not alone in facing this challenge. A report produced by the World Economic Forum in 2015 showed that only 8% of businesses were following a clear plan to digitalise their businesses, while nine out of ten are not doing this.

Luckily, there are some good examples on our doorstep of businesses that are pressing ahead. Volvo is a sterling example thanks to its initiative to develop driverless cars. I hope and feel sure that the list of Nordic companies that are really making the most of the opportunities offered by cognitive systems will grow significantly longer in the years ahead. Let there be no doubt: the opportunities already exist – it is just a case of being clever enough to see them.

Björn Ivroth






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