If you're looking for exposure to the artificial intelligence trend, you'll find no lack of potentially attractive investment options. From retail to cloud services to software, the technology is already reshaping fundamental aspects of dozens of industries.
To narrow that wide field a bit, we asked Motley Fool contributors to highlight a few AI stocks worth following in February, and they offered up IBM (NYSE:IBM), iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT), and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT). Read on to see why these investments might deserve a spot on your watchlist.
Don't underestimate Big Blue
Leo Sun (IBM): IBM is often considered a dusty old tech company, but it remains a major player in the AI market. Its Watson AI platform, which once played Jeopardy!, evolved into a full-fledged AI service for enterprise customers like Macy's, H&R Block, and General Motors.
The bears often note that Watson faces tough competition from similar AI services from Amazon and Microsoft. That's a valid point, but IBM's Cognitive Solutions revenue (which includes Watson) still rose 2% annually to $5.4 billion on a constant currency basis last quarter -- which marked a rebound from the unit's 5% decline in the third quarter.
Watson is one of the core growth engines of IBM's Strategic Imperatives (SI) -- which include its cloud, mobile, analytics, security, and social businesses. Its core turnaround strategy is to grow its SI revenues -- which rose 9% annually and accounted for half of its top line over the past 12 months -- to offset the slowdown in its legacy businesses.
It's a slow and painful process. That's why IBM's revenue fell annually over the past two quarters. However, IBM's acquisition of Red Hat should boost its long-term revenues and open up fresh growth opportunities for its SI businesses. IBM is also launching new AI features, including a new dataset to reduce bias in facial recognition technologies, to attract new clients. IBM still faces plenty of headwinds, but investors shouldn't overlook its growth potential in the nascent AI market.
Sucking up profits
Demitri Kalogeropoulos (iRobot): If you've been waiting for evidence of a good business model emerging around manufacturing autonomous cleaning devices, then February might just be your month. iRobot, the company behind the market-leading Roomba vacuum franchise, recently closed out its first $1 billion sales year while shipping 4.5 million units, up from 3.7 million in the prior year.
The better news for shareholders is that iRobot raised its selling prices and improved gross profit margin despite a surge of competition from rivals. That success implies the company enjoys some serious advantages in branding, tech leadership, and retailing access, as this niche moves deeper into the mainstream of consumer electronics.
To be sure, a decade from now iRobot won't maintain anything like the 60% market share it enjoyed in 2017. Management estimates that it lost about 3 percentage points in the last year in the U.S., in fact. But the industry should grow quickly enough over the next decade to power significant sales gains as robotic vacuums expand beyond today's modest installed base. If iRobot can protect its innovation and branding lead in that time -- while extending it into areas like mopping and lawn care -- it could add many more billions of dollars to its annual revenue pace.
AI will be a game changer for Microsoft
Jamal Carnette, CFA (Microsoft): Its stock languished for years under prior CEO Steve Ballmer, but Microsoft is experiencing a renaissance under current CEO Satya Nadella. Shares are up nearly 200% under Nadella's reign, and the company is currently the most valuable by market cap in the United States.
Ballmer was determined to make Microsoft a "device and services" company, whereas Nadella wisely chose to focus on higher-margin cloud services, referring to the company as "mobile first, cloud first." Under Nadella, Microsoft Azure has grown to be the second-largest cloud infrastructure provider and the only serious competitor to Amazon's AWS. Now Nadella is focused on AI as the next growth opportunity. In 2017 Nadella proclaimed the company would focus on the "intelligent cloud," AI-based cloud computing, and he later reorganized the corporate structure to these opportunities.
In the race to the intelligent cloud Microsoft has an advantage over other competitors: The company already has a strong cloud infrastructure stack (IaaS and PaaS) and the biggest software-as-a-service (SaaS) product with Microsoft Office 365. These existing relationships, along with a forward-thinking CEO like Nadella, put Microsoft in the driver's seat to benefit from the tremendous growth in AI technology.