Can today’s tech giants adapt fast enough to the age of AI?
Like all disruptive technologies, artificial intelligence has the potential to upset the processes, products and business models on which today’s most successful companies are founded. Computing platform shifts such as this usually leave at least some industry leaders out in the cold: today’s incumbents are all racing to make sure that doesn’t include them.
Two events this week show the different ways in which AI is coming to dominate Big Tech’s agenda.
First, Meta announced a second round of job cuts, jettisoning 10,000 workers on top of the 11,000 it said it would let go late last year. Along with scrapping 5,000 more open positions, this has gone a long way to assuaging Wall Street’s anger over the company’s earlier refusal to dial back its heavy spending in the face of an advertising slowdown.
Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg made clear, though, that there was a lot more to this latest overhaul than simply slashing costs. In his view, Meta has to slim down, cut layers of management and move much faster to capitalise on big changes sweeping through the tech industry — with AI the most significant.
It is less than 18 months since Zuckerberg renamed his company to reflect the central role virtual worlds played in his vision of the future, but priorities have clearly shifted since then.
AI already represented Meta’s biggest single tech investment, Zuckerberg said this week. He also pointedly singled it out ahead of the metaverse when discussing the technologies with the most importance to Meta’s business.
AI had a key role to play in the company’s core services by improving the way people “creatively expressed” themselves and found content, he said, as well as boosting the productivity and speed of the company’s engineers. As the Financial Times reported late last month, AI is also now an important engine of Meta’s advertising, helping to overcome some of the damage to its ad-targeting capabilities caused by Apple’s privacy changes.
Of course, AI is an important technology behind the metaverse as well, and Zuckerberg is hardly backing down from his long-range VR vision. But in terms of the issues that have the most immediate impact on his company’s competitiveness — countering the rise of TikTok, boosting engagement, lifting revenues, honing the effectiveness of Meta’s engineering teams — AI is now central.
Microsoft, meanwhile, faces a very different AI challenge. While Zuckerberg is trying to re-equip his company while also managing a significant retrenchment, Microsoft has a head start. The close ties it forged with OpenAI three years ago have put it in prime position roll out generative AI to the masses. The question now is to change the way hundreds of millions of people use its software.
This week, Microsoft outlined how it plans to push new AI features into widely used software applications such as Word and Excel. This means putting generative AI tools into the hands of workers to make them more creative; allowing people to control their applications using natural language commands; and introducing software “agents” that can dig through a user’s work to find and highlight relevant material.
This sounds all well and good in theory, but are the world’s “information workers” ready for the big changes in work practices this technology will bring? And will it really make them more productive?
Generative AI has quickly become something no tech company wants to be left without. There is a race on to implant it into widely used software and internet services. It will take trial and error to find out which of promises that have been made for the technology pan out, and which are empty hype.
The optimists claim that AI lends itself better than other technologies to mass adoption. The viral success of ChatGPT shows the appeal of using natural language to control computers. This could have special relevance for Microsoft’s customers: as the company has added more features to its applications, making them more complicated, workers have struggled to keep up. Life might be much easier when all software responds to simple natural language commands.
But Microsoft has bet on supposedly transformative new computing interfaces before and come up wanting, from redesigning Windows to be touch-first (PC users hated it) to promising that previous voice assistants such as Cortana would completely change computing. Will this time be different? As Microsoft and the rest of Big Tech rush to show that AI can make their services newly relevant, we are about to find out.