A survey of 665 IT professionals mainly working for small-to-medium businesses (SMBs) conducted by DigitalOcean, a provider of cloud computing services, finds 43% are applying artificial intelligence for both personal and business use cases, with another 6% using AI only at work.

More than three-quarters (78%) anticipate an increase in their use of AI/ML in 2024 compared to the previous year, while only 3% expect a decrease. A total of 19% foresee no change in their usage.

Software development is the top area where AI is being embraced (47%), followed by data analysis (34%), process automation (27%), marketing (24%) and customer service/engagement (24%), the survey finds.

Among survey respondents using AI, 45% report these technologies make their job easier, while 43% feel they are over-hyped.

Only 8% perceive AI to be a threat to their job compared to 31% that do not. A notable 27% feel that these tools enable a focus on more critical tasks, while 19% stress the need for additional safeguards before trusting them. Another 19% find no difference in their daily work due to these tools. Some 10% remain undecided, while 8% said these tools introduce organizational confusion. Only 3% believe they complicate their job.

Many enterprise IT organizations, when it comes to AI, are ahead of the curve, but it’s apparent smaller organizations are now closing the gap, says Megan Wood, chief product and strategy officer at DigitalOcean. Many smaller companies, when competing with larger companies, have historically tended to adopt emerging technologies quickly to level the playing field, she notes. “They tend to be more agile,” adds Wood.

The advantage many larger enterprises enjoy when it comes to AI is the volume of data they have collected over the years that might be used to train an AI model. However, many of those organizations have not always managed that data well, so it might take the better part of a year for them to organize their data in a way that makes it feasible to train AI models. SMBs, in contrast, may not have as much access to data but that may not matter as much as it becomes simpler to extend foundational large language models (LLMs) access as a managed service. SMBs can then leverage retrieval-augmented augmentation (RAG) techniques to expose those LLMs to additional data that can be used to automate a business process.

Naturally, not every SMB is going to have the level of technical acumen required to achieve that goal, but it may not be only a matter of time before tools that make it simpler to leverage these techniques become more accessible.

The one thing that is clear in the meantime is an AI arms race is now well underway. Larger organizations may soon be surprised by the degree to which smaller organizations will be able to leverage AI to gain a competitive advantage. It may not be clear how sustainable those advantages are going to be, given the resources larger organizations have at their disposal, but no matter how complex and advanced IT becomes there is never going to be a substitute for simply being more nimble.