AI and the channel: Do you need it?


 AI is a highly transformational technology. How can channel companies leverage it?

Artificial intelligence will change the world. When AI is successful, it dramatically changes performance metrics and outcomes. AI will be as transformational as the silicon chip has been.

Yet while we dream of androids, electric sheep and other high-level concepts, AI has been thriving at the more bare metal points of our society, managing obscure processes and delivering brilliant results from mundane tasks. For companies in the channel, the use case is more important than definitions. And since AI could offer a lot to customers, it makes sense to include it in your products. But what does that entail?

AI's commercial place

Several types of AI have matured enough to distinguish commercial use cases, says associate professor Deshen Moodley from the Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research (CAIR).

"There are some very mature and robust AI technologies, like image recognition, for example, number plate recognition, voice recognition (Siri). But these are also being improved on in AI research labs and, of course, the research community is also exploring some new cutting-edge techniques that have not reached production environments in industry."

Several of these implementations are available as cloud services, enabling companies to inject those features into their products. But this comes with a catch: AI is a multidisciplinary field. Moodley notes that even though it traditionally falls under computer science, AI attracts talents ranging from applied mathematics to philosophy. Demand has made AI skills hard to secure.

Most companies, including service providers, are better off partnering with a specialised AI company or academic body than to do it alone. Partnerships are also useful because AI is still very risky. A new report from MIT and Boston Consulting finds that only 11% of companies see a significant return on AI investments. Many of the report's respondents are also building their AI capabilities internally, which is expensive and demanding work. Channel providers that can reduce that risk and boost investment returns will capture more of the market.

Talking to the channel

Providers could also benefit from specialising in sectors. Different sectors adopt AI for different reasons, and use cases are often nuanced. If you can think of an AI-enhanced service that will appeal to financial planners, you might be onto something. Successful AI needs indepth knowledge of bespoke industries. Channel companies with distinct sector focus might have an advantage if they start adding in AI-powered features.

If we strip away the various definitions and AI flavours, there are two clear use cases: managing information and automating processes. SailPoint and Infobip Africa are two companies that reflect these. Both effectively help their customers manage, present and respond to information through automation, yet in very different areas. SailPoint uses AI to offer security detection services, and Infobip is blazing trails with service chatbots. But both reflect the same view: AI is a means to an end for better services.

"Intelligence is never its own goal; it's what you do with it that matters," says Craig Greenwood-Selby, managing director of Infobip Africa. "The tech world, in general, recognised the importance of AI and its ability to improve our everyday lives, and that is why AI is now incorporated in a wide array of industries and solutions, from cars and medicines to chatbots and contact centres."

Skills are the main barrier to enter the AI market, and these companies rely on internal teams to maintain their advantage. Although cloud platforms are opening AI's doors for more parties, the skills shortage is a serious problem – and not one solved by the usual head-hunting. Academics such as Moodley promote the development of AI skills as national imperatives. The channel should heed that call and start working with each other.

Then there are the customers, many of which have the cat by the tail, says Hans- Robert Vermeulen, identity strategist at SailPoint. "I encounter people who mistake artificial intelligence for real intelligence and overestimate what it can achieve."

He adds that building understanding and confidence in customers is key to success. "More and more is possible each day, and I’m sure that many clients will happily let the AI make more and more decisions in the not too distant future."

Channel providers can also distinguish themselves by combatting 'AI washing', adds Greenwood-Selby. "AI washing is falsely labelling technology solutions as AI for marketing and sales purposes by companies to make them look like better and more desirable options. That is confusing a lot of potential customers, and it clouds their ability to recognise what is AI and what isn't."

Thus, the channel's AI winners will dispel such misrepresentations and help reduce risk and find ways for the customer to see value (and understand what to look for). It's best to have an internal AI team, but it's not necessary. AI's success depends on successful collaborations and partnerships.

Channel companies can leverage the cloud and partners to enhance their offerings – and focus on customers and use cases. Of course, specialist services make AI their raison d'etre, but that’s not the only way into this emerging market.

"The field of AI is quite broad. There are a range of different techniques, and even a combination of techniques, that can be used to solve different problems," says Moodley.