BOSTON — If we compare the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in the enterprise to the history of computer innovation, we're running about 60 years behind.

Tom Austin, vice president and fellow at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, shared that thought in his keynote address about AI realities this morning at the AI World Conference, taking place at the Boston Marriott Copley Place hotel.

Austin compared the current state of AI application developments to the year 1958 in the evolution of computers. 

"We're in a great period of promise but great turbulence as well," he said. "You might get me to bump up to (1964) with the emergence of the IBM System/360."

Austin's thesis: AI in the enterprise exists, sure. But don't fall for the AI hype, he warned.

AI Has a Long Ways to Go

Why is AI application development stuck 59 years ago?

In 1958, people using computers had to provide their own sorting capabilities. No system provided sort, Austin said. Further, there were a lack standards, a dearth of off-the-shelf applications, bespoke solutions, few engineering cookbooks and a high risk factor with few, if any, safety systems.

"We didn't have software vendors until the early '80s," Austin said. "We do have have some application vendors today in AI. The production applications that have rolled out to use AI today are focused on one area: customer-facing applications. And that's where you'll find a lot of activity and interest .... So it feels like 1958 all over again in terms of maturity and we have a long way to go .... Look at all the progress we had to make in computers to get to where we are today."

Gartner AI Numbers Tell the Story

Austin said the science behind AI has been impressive. The actual application of it? Not so much yet.

He backed that with numbers by Gartner. The research firm interviewed more than 3,806 CIOs around the world about the application of AI in their companies. Austin shared those numbers today in advance of the report's scheduled release in the new year. The company found only 4 percent of respondents had at least one AI-based application in production mode. Another 4 percent claimed they were in the process of putting them in place.

Learning Opportunities

"So we're not there," Austin said. "You shouldn't be disappointed by that. We have a long way to go."

Both Google and Microsoft (and Amazon, we found) have recently announced the availability of AI consulting services, Austin said. "Why?" he asked. "Because the applications aren't there. And so we need five generations of applications potentially to get where we think we need to be."

One practitioner who followed Austin on stage at the conference disagreed with Austin's prognosis. Martin Mrugal, chief innovation officer of North America for SAP, said he's seen an increase in the adoption curve for AI applications in the enterprise. "There is a lot of hype" but also "really great" AI business uses cases, Mrugal said. 

How to Set AI Goals Today

So how do you innovate in your enterprise today while you wait for AI to mature? Don't focus on a moonshot, Austin said. Focus on short time to value. "You can't spend a year building," Austin said. "You need to pick up something that you can implement with the help of consultants in 90 days or less. Be a fast follower. Copy people."

Demand products, not experiments. Demand demonstrated solutions that address a need. Have a bias toward a large number of a small, tactical wins. Protect your career by protecting senior executives from false expectations. 

"I'm really impressed by the science," Austin said. "We have five generations to go before we know the shape of the Golden Age. The economics are strong. We see the AI Age as separate from the Age of IT, just as the Steel Age was separate from Iron Age. The business of innovation is very interesting, and people are great. Underset expectations, copy and succeed."