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"The development of AI is as fundamental as the creation of the microprocessor, the personal computer, the internet, and the mobile phone. Entire industries will reorient around it. Businesses will distinguish themselves by how well they use it." Bill Gates1

Excitement around progress in artificial intelligence (AI) has been building rapidly in tech circles in recent years, but the wider world remained nonplussed – until recently. Following its release in late 2022, ChatGPT2 attracted 100 million users in just three months, provoked a media frenzy and became one of the most talked-about tech developments of recent times, leaving competitors like Alphabet, Meta and Baidu scrambling to release similar products.

Amid the deluge of announcements from tech companies, it is easy to see AI as a ‘tech story’. AI offers outstanding opportunities for some tech companies and will be hugely disruptive or even fatal for the business models of others. Yet the most significant impacts – and investment opportunities – are likely to be found elsewhere, as this powerful technology with the potential to accelerate productivity, spur creativity and reduce costs, is applied across the wider economy.

There is, however, one key difference between AI and previous transformative new technologies, such as railways, electrical power and the internet. These took decades to penetrate the global economy fully as the associated infrastructure of railway lines, electricity grids and telecommunications networks was painstakingly put in place. In contrast, the infrastructure needed for AI already exists. With widespread internet access, billions of personal computing devices, and a global network of cloud computing datacentres already in place, AI’s transformative potential can be unleashed almost overnight.

Whatever one’s views of AI, it is being adopted rapidly and disruption is guaranteed. We believe its overall impact is likely to be positive, but it is up to all of us to develop the norms and demand the regulations and governance that ensure we maximise its benefits, while mitigating the potential harms.

Usability is the killer app

ChatGPT’s success is not simply due to first-mover status and great public relations. New architectures, algorithms and astonishing amounts of data and computing power have turbocharged the latest AIs, known as ‘foundation models’. These show increasingly impressive abilities to comprehend relationships between data, and form a rudimentary understanding of concepts expressed in language, images or other forms.

The latest foundation models, such as GPT-4, outperform many humans in maths, logic and image recognition tests, and demonstrate particularly impressive language skills, with an incredible ability to parse the meaning of text inputs and generate outputs, even across multiple languages.

These impressive abilities to understand, manipulate and generate language will directly impact industries like journalism, marketing and translation, but the bigger impact will come from the profound change in the human relationship with technology that this empowers. Ordinary users can now interact with software or even create personalised software in a natural, conversational way. When a user interacts with an AI model like ChatGPT, they are essentially reprogramming its software to produce a response, an activity that would have previously required a team of software engineers.

AI won’t take your job – but an AI-assisted human might

AI will undoubtedly disrupt the technology sector, but the precise impacts are difficult to predict. The clearest beneficiaries are the broad enablers of digitalisation, such as TSMC, ASML and Nvidia. These companies dominate the design and production of the sophisticated semiconductors that underpin AI models. Similarly, IT consulting firms like Accenture that advise on how to use new technologies, could also benefit.

Other potential beneficiaries are software providers, as their products become more useful and valuable in daily life.3 However, this may also reduce the barriers to entry in software development, thus increasing competition across the software sector. It can further highlight the importance of competitive advantages such as proprietary data, network effects and customer relationships. Customers could get the better end of the deal initially, but over the longer term, companies are likely to discover ways to monetise at least a portion of the consumer surplus.

There are several potential pathways for the development of AI-enabled products. We could see a proliferation of application-specific AIs, with each one trained to deliver the best performance for the lowest cost in its particular niche. Longer-term, these could be superseded by next-generation digital personal assistants, like a mobile, multi-media ‘Siri’ or ‘Alexa’ that interacts with all forms of software on our behalf.

Outside of the tech sector, the prizes for seizing the lead in applying AI could be even greater. Early adopters that deploy AI efficiently in their businesses to automate, speed up processes and leverage data could gain market share across a swathe of industries. More broadly, AI could finally solve the ‘productivity puzzle’, in which technological advances since the 1980s have failed to produce stronger economy-wide productivity and growth. If, as some suggest, this has been driven by a lack of sufficiently cheap and flexible software, then the removal of this bottleneck could see a sharp, sustained improvement in productivity and living standards.

AI can help solve problems – or make them worse

New general-purpose technologies, particularly new media technologies, tend to cause societal disruption before new norms emerge. The humble printing press shoulders some responsibility for the religious Reformation and Europe’s witch-hunting mania of the early modern period.4

What will AI bring? A fight over copyright seems certain. Pre-dating ChatGPT by a year, OpenAI’s Dall-E image-generating model saw great popularity. However, AI-generated art has been accompanied by a string of court cases brought by artists whose work has been used to train AI models. Is this plagiarism and copyright infringement, as critics claim, or more akin to the inspiration inherent in any form of artistic creation?

A wider concern is how AI-powered news, work, entertainment and education will shape our societies and cultures. As AI-powered software plays a greater role in our lives, the values implicit in it become more important. The development of regulation and usage norms will be essential, but establishing these could be a painful process. Some parties will favour maximum regulation – to protect their businesses, intellectual property or cultural values – and some states will regulate to preserve tight social control, or reduce the risks of a runaway ‘artificial general intelligence’. Battles over copyright, centralisation versus decentralisation, on-device use or cloud-based approaches will all be important and could ultimately be influenced by regulation.

A thematic lens adds clarity

The present hype around AI is redolent of crypto mania and Ready Player One expectations for the metaverse. In reality, most significant technological breakthroughs take decades to overcome teething problems and for economies to take full advantage of them. In the case of AI there is the potential for a lot to happen very quickly, but legal and ethical issues, as well as regulatory intervention could delay widespread deployment.

In the near term, AI will continue to be primarily a productivity-enhancing tool, particularly for creators and software programmers. In time, it is likely to be used to reduce boring or time-consuming tasks and improve life in myriad ways, for example through personalisation of services such as entertainment and education.

Longer term, AI has the potential to boost productivity and living standards dramatically. By removing the bottleneck of costly software, we could see the digitalisation of economies accelerate further, boosting productivity. For example, a lack of suitable software has prevented technology from having a big impact in the education or health sectors; with AI, the promise of truly personalised and dramatically more effective learning and healthcare could be achieved. If the leading AI models continue to progress at the current rate, it’s feasible to hope these could help unlock solutions to some of greatest challenges facing our society, such as developing new materials and technologies needed to address climate change.

While it is too early to assess the implications for individual companies, these will undoubtedly emerge after a period of disruption and adjustment. In our view, a thematic, fundamental investment approach is key to spotting and understanding the complex ramifications of tech breakthroughs such as these. We believe the effect of AI will be transformative for the economy, and wider society, and we keenly follow the progress of this exciting space.

1 Wall Street Journal, Bill Gates Says AI Is the Most Revolutionary Technology in Decades, 22 March 2023

2 GPT stands for ‘generative pre-trained transformer’.

3 For example, Microsoft recently announced a suite of AI ‘co-pilots’ for supply chain managers, marketers and salespeople, The Economist, 6 March 2023.

4  The widespread dissemination of non-Latin bibles, Protestant pamphlets and Heinrich Kramer’s Maleus Maleficarum (1487) would not have been possible without the technology of the moveable type printing press.


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If you are a private investor, you should not act or rely on this document but should contact your professional adviser.

This document has been approved by Sarasin & Partners LLP of Juxon House, 100 St Paul’s Churchyard, London, EC4M 8BU, a limited liability partnership registered in England & Wales with registered number OC329859 which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority with firm reference number 475111.

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Neither Sarasin & Partners LLP nor any other member of the Bank J. Safra Sarasin group accepts any liability or responsibility whatsoever for any consequential loss of any kind arising out of the use of this document or any part of its contents. The use of this document should not be regarded as a substitute for the exercise by the recipient of his or her own judgment. Sarasin & Partners LLP and/or any person connected with it may act upon or make use of the material referred to herein and/or any of the information upon which it is based, prior to publication of this document. If you are a private investor you should not rely on this document but should contact your professional adviser. © 2023 Sarasin & Partners LLP – all rights reserved. This document can only be distributed or reproduced with permission from Sarasin & Partners LLP. Please contact [email protected].

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The contents of this website have been approved for issue in South Africa by Sarasin & Partners LLP (‘Sarasin’), which is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Under no circumstances should this information or any part of it be copied, reproduced or redistributed.

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This website and the information contained within is for South African residents only and not for distribution outside the South Africa. If you are not a South African resident, you must leave this site immediately and accept Sarasin will not be liable in any way whatsoever for your use of this website or the information contained within if you choose to proceed

It is not for distribution outside South Africa and should not be relied upon by retail investors.

If you do not meet the above criteria, you must leave this site immediately and you accept Sarasin will not be liable in any way whatsoever for your use of this website or the information contained within if you choose to proceed.

What you should know about the site’s content

This website should not be regarded as an offer or solicitation to conduct investment business in any jurisdiction other than South Africa. The information on this website is provided on the condition that it will not form the basis for any investment decision by the recipient or clients that the recipient may be representing or acting for.

The information on this website has been obtained from sources that Sarasin believe to be reliable and accurate at the date of publication, but no warranty of accuracy is given. We are not responsible for the accuracy of information contained within sites provided by third parties, which may have links to or from our pages. Any opinions expressed are our judgement at the time of writing and are subject to change without notice. By proceeding you agree to the exclusion by Sarasin of any liability in respect of any errors or omissions by Sarasin and any other relevant third parties.

The information on this website does not in any way constitute investment, tax, legal or any other form of advice or recommendation that a product or investment is suitable for you or your circumstances. If you are unsure as to whether the investments described in this site are suitable for you should seek professional advice from a professional adviser.

Cookies and other policies

This website uses cookies. A cookie is a small file of letters and numbers that we put on your electronic device which is essential for the website to function properly and which help to provide you with a better online experience. These cookies cannot be switched off and do not store any of your information. We also use non-essential cookies which you can consent to or reject via the cookie consent tool on our website. By continuing to access this website, you agree to these warnings and important information.

Please make sure you have also read our Legal Information, Important Information and Privacy Policies which apply to your use of this website. To access these, please click on the links at the footer of the home page.

It is important that you read this information before proceeding, as it explains certain legal and regulatory restrictions applicable to the use of this website.

By clicking the ‘Accept’ button you acknowledge that the information below has been brought to your attention.

The contents of this website have been approved for issue in South Africa by Sarasin & Partners LLP (‘Sarasin’), which is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Under no circumstances should this information or any part of it be copied, reproduced or redistributed.

Who can use this site

This information on this website is only for South Africa residents who are:

professional investors;

our product distributor partners; or

regulated professional intermediaries.

It is not for distribution outside South Africa and should not be relied upon by retail investors.

If you do not meet the above criteria, you must leave this site immediately and you accept Sarasin will not be liable in any way whatsoever for your use of this website or the information contained within if you choose to proceed.

What you should know about the site’s content

This website should not be regarded as an offer or solicitation to conduct investment business in any jurisdiction other than South Africa.

The information on this website has been obtained from sources that Sarasin believe to be reliable and accurate at the date of publication, but no warranty of accuracy is given. We are not responsible for the accuracy of information contained within sites provided by third parties, which may have links to or from our pages. Any opinions expressed are our judgement at the time of writing and are subject to change without notice. By proceeding you agree to the exclusion by Sarasin of any liability in respect of any errors or omissions by Sarasin and any other relevant third parties.

The information on this website does not in any way constitute investment, tax, legal or any other form of advice or recommendation that a product or investment is suitable for you or your circumstances. If you are unsure as to whether the investments described in this site are suitable for you should seek professional advice from a professional adviser.

Cookies and other policies

This website uses cookies. A cookie is a small file of letters and numbers that we put on your electronic device which is essential for the website to function properly and which help to provide you with a better online experience. These cookies cannot be switched off and do not store any of your information. We also use non-essential cookies which you can consent to or reject via the cookie consent tool on our website. By continuing to access this website, you agree to these warnings and important information.

Please make sure you have also read our Legal Information, Important Information and Privacy Policies which apply to your use of this website. To access these, please click on the links at the footer of the home page.

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