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US Tech Giants Lead the Way in Artificial Intelligence

Investing in AI is complicated as there aren't many pure-play companies, but firms like Google, Amazon and Facebook provide shareholders with access

External Writer 13 November, 2017 | 9:21AM

Artificial intelligence

There's a heated debate among the tech elite about whether artificial intelligence (AI) will destroy or enhance human life. Tesla (TSLA) founder Elon Musk has been sounding the alarm over AI for months, saying in September that AI will be the cause for World War III. Facebook (FB) founder Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, counters that AI will benefit the world.

While it could be decades before we know who's right, the fact that two tech giants are talking so passionately about AI means one thing for investors: this market is going to be huge. According to research published on Statista, global AI revenues are expected to jump from about $2.4 billion today to nearly $60 billion by 2025.

What qualifies as an AI stock? AI is a mostly catch-all phrase that people use when talking about automation, robotics, big data, and other tech-related innovations. In some ways, AI is all of the above, but the growth market is in the more advanced AI, much of which hasn't yet been implemented. Examples include self-driving cars, predictive analytics, robots doing office work, and more.

"A lot of this, like self-driving cars, is very far away," says Abhinav Davuluri, a Morningstar equity analyst.

But these AI-driven innovations are coming, and many companies are already implementing AI, mostly in consumer-facing products. Voice-activated technology, like Amazon's (AMZN) Alexa or Alphabet's (GOOGL) Google Home, are good examples of AI plays today. Facebook, Google parent company Alphabet, and Amazon, which collect copious amounts of data on their users, are using AI to help improve searches and interact with customers.

"It's still early innings and most of the applications are for consumers and those aren't necessarily being monetised to the fullest," says Davuluri. "A lot of companies are still figuring out how to adopt AI."

AI: Better Solutions for Existing Problems

As companies see the value of giving people things they want before they want it, more firms are going to invest in and purchase AI tools.

"AI in general is applying technology, algorithms and programs to existing problems and coming up with better solutions," says Walter Price, co-manager of Allianz Technology Trust (ATT). "It's getting a lot easier to programme and develop and people are focused on using it to solve new problems."

While investing in AI companies may seem like a no-brainer, it's also more complicated than it might seem. There aren't many pure-play companies, as most smaller AI-focused operations are bought by other companies, or they're content with collecting venture capital money and staying private. 

In most cases, buying into AI means owning Amazon, Google, Facebook, IBM (IBM), and Intel (INTC), companies that have many other businesses outside of AI. For most, AI is just a small part of their business today. Intel doesn't break its numbers out, though Davuluri thinks that AI would account for less than 5% of the company's revenues. That will rise over the next few years for Intel and others.

"It should be very fast growing," he says.

For comparison, semiconductor company Nvidia (NVDA), which is considered one of the more pure-play AI operations, has exploded over the past few years. Its stock price has soared by more than 1,500% since 2012, compared with 78% for the S&P 500. Revenues have also climbed by nearly 125% to $10 billion in the 2017 financial year.

High Valuations are Putting Off Investors

One of the other problems with playing the AI theme is valuations. Nvidia has a price earnings (P/E) ratio of around 56 times, while Amazon has a P/E of 249. But, like many technology companies, it's hard to value these companies on current earnings only. They carry astronomical valuations because of the promise of their future earnings. If AI does become as life-altering as many expect, then paying a P/E of 56 for Nvidia will be a steal. 

For investors, it may not be a matter of if they play the AI trend, but when. Every technological revolution goes through the same kind of cycle: mania, depression, and then adoption. Scott Burns, Morningstar's head of asset management solutions, says we're likely in the mania period with AI. At some point companies will start missing their estimates and investor sentiment will turn.

"There's a difference between AI having a lot of growth in the future and AI being a great investment right now," he says. "Growth is never in a straight line."

Price also thinks the stocks are overhyped right now and points to Nvidia as an example. He bought in to the company two years ago and only expected the stock to double in price. It's gone up by more than 500% since.

"It's become one of the most valuable semiconductor companies in the world, but there's a lot of expectation at this point," he says.

For Davuluri, the opportunity is real, but he'd rather investors buy on a price decline, rather than get in now. You don't have to wait for Nvidia to fall to $45, but you might want to hold off until the stock drops by 15%.

"Be patient and when there's a sell-off or a bad quarter or we get a bit of correction, that's where the enticing opportunities arise," he says.

Amazon and Google are Strong Contenders

While it still may be a while before the market dips, investors who are interested in AI should start figuring out what businesses they want to buy. There are two main subsectors with AI: semiconductors and everything else. The semiconductor companies, like Intel and Nvidia, are creating chips used to power this technology. 

The other players, like Google, Amazon, IBM and Facebook, are involved in a number of AI initiatives, but again, they have many other lines of business. They key is figuring out which companies will benefit most from AI, whether that's using AI to further their own operations or to develop products they might sell to others.

"The most capable AI groups are the Googles, Amazons' and Microsofts," says Price. "But you need to look at the fundamentals in the business and see what AI would add it to it."

Both Alphabet and Amazon are interesting, adds Davuluri. Alphabet would be the more AI-centric play of the two; it's working on a number of AI-related products. Amazon could benefit from AI in other ways. For instance, its budding Amazon Web Services division, which is the only profitable part of the company, is the go-to cloud storage for many companies. The more data that gets stored on its servers – and AI requires a copious amounts of data to work – the more that part of Amazon's business will grow.

On the chip side, Intel presents an opportunity if it falls a bit, says Davuluri. He likes some of the AI-related acquisitions the company has made; it bought deep learning company Nervana in August 2016 for about $400 million, for instance, and he thinks the company could look quite different in five or 10 years from now as AI becomes a bigger part of its business.

Qualcomm (QCOM) also has interesting future, says Davuluri. It has a lot of exposure to smartphones, and it has done poorly because of its legal battle with Apple (AAPL), but it will likely start developing more AI-related chips.

"It's not a pure play, but it is a noteworthy name," he says. It currently has a 4-star Morningstar rating, suggesting that shares are undervalued.

The message for investors is: pick your spots, in most places wait for a pullback to get in, and then watch the returns add up.

"We're not at the stage of disappointment yet, but it could be on its way," says Price. "But then you can make more money when the reality stage comes in."

Bryan Borzykowski is a freelance columnist for Morningstar.com. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Morningstar.com.

The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

Securities Mentioned in Article
Security NamePriceChange (%)Morningstar
Rating
Allianz Technology Trust Ord1,187.00 GBX0.17
Alphabet Inc A1,035.89 USD-1.20
Amazon.com Inc1,129.88 USD-0.65
Apple Inc170.15 USD-0.56
Facebook Inc A179.00 USD-0.33
Intel Corp44.63 USD-2.23
International Business Machines Corp148.97 USD-0.10
NVIDIA Corp211.36 USD-0.12
Qualcomm Inc66.72 USD0.92
Tesla Inc315.05 USD0.82
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