AI is driving the transformation of business and value creation in new directions.

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A new breed of IT expert is getting the knowledge and skills needed to take their place in a burgeoning AI economy.

Whether it is chatbots for customer interaction, neural networks for identifying the patterns tucked in the data or machine learning for improving decision-making, artificial intelligence is driving the transformation of business and value creation in new directions. According to a 2017 study from Cowen and Company, 81 percent of IT leaders are currently investing in or planning to invest in AI.  Angel.co has counted 2,200 AI startups, half of which have emerged in the last two years. By 2019, those startups and others like them will “overtake Amazon,  Google, IBM and Microsoft in driving the [AI]  economy with disruptive business solutions,” according to Gartner.

Few people are as well-positioned as technologists to understand how artificial intelligence is changing the world. After all, IT professionals are accustomed to exploring new automation technologies with the potential for transforming how work gets done.

Most forms of automation focus on performing repetitive, menial tasks. AI’s sweet spot, on the other hand, is in automating tasks that can now be performed by algorithms using access to relevant data. Machine learning, a subset of AI, is an approach to make algorithms “smarter” as they “learn” from more examples. That’s one of the reasons why big data and AI seem to be evolving together.

“With more examples, we can get better algorithms and better prediction accuracy,” explains Kendall Giles, an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech and a faculty member in the university’s Online Master of Information Technology program.

The use of big data and machine learning is just one of the Virginia Tech MIT course concentrations available to students. Those pursuing this degree will position themselves to be in front of a wave of professional demand, with job titles such as:

Machine learning engineer

Data scientist

Research scientist

R&D engineer

Business intelligence developer

Computer vision engineer

Demand for AI specialists

“It is really not a far stretch to claim that every IT professional today must have a working understanding of data science to be successful,” says Naren Ramakrishnan, the Thomas L. Phillips Professor of Engineering at Virginia Tech and director of its Discovery Analytics Center. “Seven out of 10 organizations have already invested or plan to invest in big data,” he notes. “Every type of IT practitioner, whether systems or applications, will be impacted by these trends.”

In fact, adds Giles, “There’s a huge shortage in finding people with these skills, who know how to communicate with the computer, who understand technology and who can process data and enjoy doing that.”

According to the New York Times, AI specialists can demand compensation of between $300,000 and $500,000, including salary and company stock, with just a few years of experience. Why such sizable pay? Big companies are driving “a lot of the dollars,” Giles says. “The Googles and Microsofts are able to hire and pay big bucks.”

Virginia Tech’s Online Master of Information Technology program is offered jointly by the College of Engineering and the Pamplin College of Business. Ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the No. 2 “Best Online Graduate Computer Information Technology Programs” the past four years.