SAS said it will launch a series of AI models that are lightweight and focused on industry use cases. The company also added generative AI features to its Viya platform and unveiled "nutrition labels" for models.

The news, outlined at the company's SAS Innovate conference in Las Vegas, is part of the company's broader investment in AI.

"Once seen as the laggard in the industry, the decades of experience in mastering data by SAS is now very valuable in the packaging of data models for easy consumption for customers for AI.  They are making it easier for customers to put AI to work," said Constellation Research CEO Ray Wang. 

Here's the breakdown of what was announced:

Industry-focused models. SAS said it will roll out a series of models for individual license starting with an AI assistant for warehouse space optimization designed to enable nontechnical users to optimize and plan faster.

The general idea of the industry AI models is to give enterprises something they can deploy quickly with low overhead costs. SAS will target financial, healthcare, manufacturing and public sector AI models.

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SAS' bet is that it can move beyond large language models and drive value with industry-proven AI models for fraud detection, supply chain, document conversation and healthcare payments to name a few.

SAS Viya gets generative AI tools. SAS Viya will get trustworthy genAI tools and introduce a synthetic data generator called SAS Data Maker.

Viya has genAI orchestration tools to integrate external models, Viya Copilot for developer, data science and business productivity, Data Maker, which is in private preview, and genAI features in SAS Customer Intelligence 360.

Model cards and AI governance. SAS also said that it will offer model cards, which are a nutrition label for AI designed to flag bias and model drift, as well as AI governance services.

SAS said Model cards will be an upcoming feature in Viya in mid-2024.

SAS Viya Workbench goes GA. SAS announced the general availability of SAS Viya Workbench aimed at model developers. Viya Workbench is a self-service compute environment for data prep, analysis and developing models. Viya Workbench will be available by the end of 2024 with SAS and Python initially and R to follow. Yiya has two development environment options Jupyter Notebook/JupyterLab and Visual Studio Code. 

AWS and SAS expand partnership. SAS said it has expanded its hosted managed services to AWS including SAS Viya. SAS' full product suite is available on AWS. 

Constellation Research’s take

Andy Thurai, analyst at Constellation Research, said:

“Viya Copilot is a useful offering that can help users with multiple tasks and is likely to be particularly useful in knowledge gap analysis and data wrangling tasks. Viya Copilot could useful in reducing the manual tasks that take up data scientist time.

SAS Data Maker, in private preview, can help users create synthetic data but only in tabular format. The problem is that AI needs a lot of unstructured data, which is harder to generate. SAS Data Maker may not be much of use to many organizations that need synthetic data for AI today. I hope SAS can eventually get there.

Packaged AI models and Industry-specific lightweight models are interesting. It is notable that more vendors seem to be moving towards smaller models. Google just announced last week about the specialized models’ concept that can run on edge and other lightweight locations.

There is an argument that specialized, lightweight models may underperform without augmentation. These models need to be heavily trained on industry-specific data for them to be useful. Model cards and AI governance advisory services can help enterprises improve AI governance. However, there are smaller startups such as Guardrails AI that offer much more broader offerings in this space.

SAS’s AI initiatives are noteworthy and should interest the company’s customers. But the AI market is moving fast and many other vendors have already announced more advanced and game-changing features.”

Constellation Research analyst Doug Henschen gave his take on Viya Copilot and SAS Data Maker as well as the big picture. 

"Both Viya Copilot and SAS Data Maker are in private preview at this point, so I’d say they are potentially significant. The part that stands out for me is Data Maker, as SAS is one of the few vendors that is talking about and addressing the need for synthetic data generation. Constellation believes data scarcity will limit the accuracy and effectiveness of AI-based systems. SAS is one of the few companies talking about this capability in the context of their generative AI capabilities."

"SAS’s Copilot is similar to what many vendors have announced, and what a few now have available in public preview or even general availability. The capability that is somewhat differentiated is SAS Data Maker. All the big cloud vendors and big companies like IBM support synthetic data generation, but they don’t tend to talk about it in the same context as natural language-based GenAI. It’s a technique in which you feed the AI samples of data that you might have at a relatively small scale and the system will then generate similar, non-privacy-sensitive data sets for use in training on a massive scale." 

SAS has taken a conservative approach, but it has moved more quickly to infuse GenAI into its Customer 360 app, because that’s where competitors including Adobe and Salesforce have been pushing GenAI aggressively. Large customers doing analytics and AI at scale do not switch horses quickly based on this or that hot new feature. In fact, plenty of companies and CXOs are being very cautious about GenAI. What you will see, and what we have already seen over the years, is innovation teams doing experiments with cutting-edge vendors or cutting-edge capabilities provided by cloud vendors, for example. So SAS has to keep up. I see the company’s Generative AI Orchestration announcement as a signal to customers that SAS will enable customers to tap into a proven stable of open models when they are ready to pursue GenAI at scale.   

The pace of innovation is constantly accelerating, particularly in GenAI, so I’d like to see these private-preview announcements move into public preview and general availability as quickly as possible. I’d also like to see more detail on the portfolio of models SAS plans to make available for orchestration and where those models fit with various use cases and industry applications."