The work in artificial intelligence (AI) has accelerated over the last decade and is becoming a part of our everyday lives. Companies in numerous industries are racing to adopt AI to improve operations and the customer experience, or make sense of the massive amounts of data available. We asked three Motley Fool contributors to highlight one company that's making strides in AI that would be worth buying and holding for the next decade. They chose Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOGL) (NASDAQ:GOOG), Etsy (NASDAQ:ETSY), and Zebra Technologies (NASDAQ:ZBRA)

Alphabet: An AI pioneer

Danny Vena (Alphabet): No list of AI innovators would be complete without Alphabet. AI had been around for decades, but back in 2011, Google began its pioneering work in the field of deep learning with the Google Brain. Noted AI researcher and Stanford adjunct professor Andrew Ng collaborated with Google scientists, and the rest -- as they say -- is history.

The first major breakthrough came in 2012 when the self-learning AI system taught itself to recognize cats from 10 million images culled from YouTube videos. That might seem frivolous by today's standards, but it paved the way for significant advances in visual and speech recognition, which are now staple technologies powering smartphones.

Futuristic server room.

Image source: Getty Images.

Google doubled down on AI with its $400 million acquisition of DeepMind in 2014. The company developed a system that could defeat the world's top players in the ancient Chinese game of Go, which is universally acknowledged as the one of the most sophisticated and difficult games to master. 

There are also a growing number of applications in the medical field. Google AI has been able to detect signs of diabetic retinopathy in eye scans with 90% accuracy, and has outperformed radiologists at identifying breast cancer in mammograms. 

That's not to mention Waymo, Alphabet's self-driving car segment. The system, which was developed in 2009, is believed to be among the most advanced autonomous vehicle systems in the world. Waymo vehicles have been driving the streets around the suburbs of Phoenix for years, and its vehicles there haven't required drivers since last year. It's also testing its mettle in San Francisco and Mountain View, California. The company is considering expanding its robotaxi service, while also mulling the idea of leasing its system to automakers. 

So what does all this mean? Because it's still early days for AI and there are so many potential applications, it's difficult to quantify just how much Google's AI technology could be worth to Alphabet. Waymo's self-driving technology alone could be worth billions of dollars, but estimates vary widely. Back in 2018, Waymo was valued as high as $175 billion, though recent funding rounds have valued the unit at a more modest $30 billion. 

Internally, however, Alphabet is getting its money's worth from Google's AI. The technology helps make Google Maps, News, and Assistant smarter, and powers Google Translate to increase the accuracy of its translations. Perhaps most importantly, however, it helps boost the accuracy of Google's flagship search and digital advertising, which ultimately pay the bills.

In the second quarter, Alphabet's revenue of $61.88 billion surged 62% year over year, though part of that was the result of easier comps. This helped push earnings per share to $27.26, climbing 169%. 

It would be almost impossible to pin down just what this AI is worth to investors. That said, given its dominance in both search and digital advertising and its early and continuing investment in AI, it's easy to see why Alphabet should be a key AI stock to buy and hold for a decade.

Etsy: Utilizing AI for a better customer experience 

Will Healy (Etsy): Etsy's description as a community of sellers who offer artisan products, craft supplies, and vintage goods does not make it sound like much of an AI company on the surface. However, its 5.2 million active sellers and 90 million active buyers depend heavily on artificial intelligence to find one another. To facilitate its AI capabilities, Etsy completed a migration to Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOGL) (NASDAQ:GOOG) Google Cloud in early 2020.

Also, on Etsy's Q1 2021 earnings call, CEO Josh Silverman talked about a focus on multivariate models powered by machine learning. This involves collecting data to deliver more personalized search results. Silverman wants machine learning to so finely tune these results that "Etsy truly feels made just for you."

Artisan in their store with a coffee browsing online.

Image source: Getty Images.

Despite these efforts, investors sold off the stock after the release of its Q2 earnings. Revenue rose by 23% to $529 million in the second quarter. Net income only increased 2% year over year in Q2 to $98 million as a surge in operating expenses of 47% almost negated a $12.5 million income tax benefit. With no 2021 guidance and only 14% year-over-year revenue growth forecasted for Q3, investors sold off the stock.

Still, the first six months of 2021 brought revenue of $242 million, 122% higher than the first two quarters of 2020. Moreover, Etsy stock has risen by almost 40% over the last 12 months despite trading 30% below its 2021 high. Additionally, the P/E ratio of 50 takes the earnings multiple near historical lows. This could present an opportunity to buy a prosperous AI stock at a significant discount.

Zebra: Moving beyond the barcode

Brian Withers (Zebra Technologies): Those familiar with Zebra Technologies probably know it for its barcode printers and scanners, but the company is moving beyond its roots into exciting new areas. CEO Anders Gustafsson explains this new direction as the Enterprise Asset Intelligence vision. This effort is focused on products and solutions that "sense," "analyze," and "act." For Zebra's customers that manufacture, distribute, or sell goods, these three functions are incredibly important for tracking and managing their assets.

Robot in warehouse pulling box off shelf.

Image source: Getty Images.

For the last several years, Zebra has been enhancing its product and solution lineup along this vision by making a number of key acquisitions in smart technology. These key purchases have brought additional capabilities in house, such as robotics, AI, computer vision (a subset of AI), and machine learning (a branch of AI).

Acquisition

Announce Date

Price

Specialty

Fetch Robotics

July 2021

$290 million

Autonomous mobile robots and AI

Adaptive Vision

May 2021

Not disclosed

Computer vision 

Cortexica Vision Systems

Nov. 2019

Not disclosed

Computer vision 

Profitech

May 2019

Not disclosed

Machine learning and prescriptive analytics

Data source: Crunchbase and company news releases.

As Zebra looks to deepen its ties with the manufacturing and fulfillment industries, its two most recent acquisitions are critical enablers. On the most recent earnings call, Gustafsson explained that its merger and acquisition activities will enable it to capture "newer markets to digitize and automate workflows." As its customer processes get more complex, artificial intelligence will be a critical component to make all of this smart technology work together.

The company has a full suite of well-known products already and is growing its business handily. Last quarter the company saw 44% top-line growth and profits grew even faster at a triple-digit rate year over year. Its balance sheet is a bit debt-heavy with $338 million in cash and equivalents versus $996 million in debt, but its cash flow is stellar. For the first half of the year, Zebra generated a solid $539 million in operational cash flow.

Zebra has one foot in the present with a growing business that is critical for customers today, and one foot in the future with its Enterprise Asset Intelligence vision, smart acquisition strategy, and use of artificial intelligence to make it all work together. Over the last decade, this industrial equipment specialist's stock grew by over 1,500% for shareholders. The next decade may not be as lucrative for investors, but it's likely that this winner will keep on winning. Interested investors would do well to buy a few shares today and hold until at least 2031.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.