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The machine-learning smarts that help Google know what’s in a photo and let Amazon’s Alexa carry on a conversation are getting a real job. “ML” platforms from vendors like Amazon, Google, IBM, Microsoft, and others can automate business processes on a previously impossible scale and free up employees for more creative, thought-intensive work. They also require a lot more commitment and, sometimes, coaxing than parking an Amazon Echo on a kitchen table or tapping a button to have Google back up the photos on your phone.

But the payoff can also be correspondingly greater. “Every business process is just badly written software,” observed Markus Noga, head of machine learning at SAP. The advent of on-demand AI lets companies do something about that: “We can really turn this into software and make the company run itself.”

At this summer’s Google I/O conference, the scene of multiple announcements of AI-as-a-service initiatives, CEO Sundar Pichai set his sights slightly higher: “I’m confident AI will invent new molecules,” he said during the opening keynote.

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