Will A.I., Blockchain, 5G, and Virtual Reality Give Companies a Competitive Edge?

July 17, 2019, 5:49 PM UTC

Artificial intelligence. Blockchain. 5G networks. Virtual reality.

Business executives have no doubt been inundated with marketing materials and sales pitches proclaiming that these buzzy technologies will give them the edge over their competitors. But oftentimes, big tech initiatives fail, leading to disappointed management teams disillusioned by vendor promises.

Executives gathered Wednesday at Fortune‘s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo. to discuss these dilemmas during a panel exploring which technologies they believe gives them a competitive edge. In short, executives are still excited by technologies like A.I. and blockchain, but they need to ensure that they have identified a specific business use case for them.

Paul Cheesebrough, the chief technology officer for the Fox Corporation, for instance, is a believer in machine learning despite there being “a lot of noise.” He likened the way companies talk about A.I. to the way they talked about “the cloud” some years ago as a “badge” that indicates how tech savvy they are.

Instead of betting the farm on big A.I. projects, Cheesebrough said Fox is applying machine learning to small business projects that are more manageable. For instance Fox has “a minefield” of legal documents related to rights managements. As opposed to having 300 lawyers sift through to the documents “to say if we have rights to sell in a territory,” Fox can use A.I. techniques to “train machines to answer those questions faster,” he said.

As for virtual reality and its close cousin augmented reality, Cheesebrough said he is not “hugely positive in the near-term benefit.” It turns out that the cost of producing some short VR content is significant, with expenses nearly on par with movie production. As a result, VR and AR projects are purely part of Fox’s research and development as opposed to being more of a focus for the company.

Regarding 5G networks, most of the panel attendees didn’t discuss or explain any significant near-term benefits they believe the much-hyped technology will bring to their businesses.  That said, Kirsten Wolberg, the chief technology officer and chief operating officer at DocuSign, suggested faster wireless networks could help boost the speed of processing digital identifying forms or other documents. The 5G technology could alleviate “latency challenges” that may burden the company, she said.

Wolberg seemed less enthusiastic about blockchain technologies, which companies often pitch as a more efficient way to store and track data in a digital ledger used by multiple organizations.  Currently, blockchain projects are too expensive compared to more conventional methods of storing and securing data that work just fine, she said.

“It’s so much cheaper for us to do this and secure all the documents and not do it on the blockchain,” Wolberg said.

More must-read stories from Fortune Brainstorm Tech 2019:

A.I.’s hidden biases continue to bedevil businesses. Can they be stopped?

—Land O’Lakes CEO: Big data is helping farmers deal with climate swings

—How Spotify “playlisting” turned an unknown artist into a star

—U.S. risks falling behind in crypto, warns ‘Crypto Mom’ SEC commissioner

—Verizon executive calls for federal privacy rules on 5G

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