Artificial Intelligence: How Small-To-Medium Sized Enterprises Can Benefit

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By Jessamy Baldwin

Artificial intelligence (AI) has consistently fuelled both excitement and trepidation amongst organisations, small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and the general population at large.

At its core, AI describes the work processes of machines that would require ‘intelligence’ if performed by humans. From the Greek God Hephaestus’s three-legged self-navigating tables to Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics introduced in 1942; from computer scientist John McCarthy first making reference to AI in 1956 to smartphones, tablets, computers, gaming, virtual reality and wearables, AI has evolved over time and will continue to grow as technology improves.

Indeed, technology is so prevalent in people’s everyday lives and within businesses today, that many cannot imagine a life or future without it.  It’s clear we are on a new technology wave and if ridden effectively, there is great potential for SMEs to benefit from AI, not to mention the wider economic and social benefits.

With AI, certain technology can analyse and make decisions with higher accuracy and speed than any human. It can be integrated into existing processes and applied to large sets of data with a view to streamlining business processes, reducing costs and making better short and long-term decisions. SME’s who harness such methods will see increases in productivity, efficiency and overall performance. In one estimate, the worldwide market for AI solutions could be worth more than £30bn by 2024, boosting productivity by up to 30% in some industries, and generating savings of up to 25%.

How quickly IT has evolved

All new technologies are born out of purpose and new upgrade will offer something better, faster or stronger than what was previously available. The sharing of information is a perfect example – with floppy discs, CD-ROMS, emailing documents, USB sticks, flash drives and cloud based storage arriving one after the other, offering enhanced capabilities with each evolution.

In the world of technology, the Internet has completely changed the way people live, work and play. It is available pretty much anywhere, anytime. In our homes, cars, offices or on holiday, we’re all in constant communication via instant messaging, video chats or conferences, digital streaming, emails, apps and social media. We can send huge amounts of information across the globe at the click of a button; we can track things like food portions and fertility or access a colossal volume of content within seconds.

Importantly, we are now seeing the continued evolution of AI and the blending of physical and virtual worlds. Smart devices will undoubtedly continue to evolve to work better together and share data automatically – limiting the need for human involvement. The “Internet of Things” (IoT) will also see further advancement. The IoT is a network of physical devices, vehicles, home appliances and other items embedded with electronics, that are connected through software, sensors and technology. Gartner, an analyst firm, speculates there will be more than 26 billion connected devices by 2020.

Where AI is used now in everyday life

Modern IT and the advent of machines powered by AI have already strongly influenced the world of work in the 21st century. AI can help SMEs and employees do familiar tasks in more efficient ways, making them more productive. Routine administrative and operational jobs can be learned by software agents (‘bots’), which can then prioritise tasks, manage routine interactions with colleagues (or other bots), and plan schedules.

Many businesses and consumers are already interfacing with AI technology; voice recognition devices and virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, Cortana, and Siri, are used at home and in the workplaces.

Examples:

  • Newsrooms are increasingly using machine learning to write sports reports and draft articles.
  • In the office, similar technology can produce financial reports and executive briefings.
  • In the legal sector, AI is being used to sift court documents and legal records for case-relevant information.
  • Platforms such as IBM’s Watson are able to support expert systems that can answer factual natural language questions.
  • For cybersecurity firms, AI offers a way of recognising unusual patterns of behaviour in a network.
  • Google Maps can analyse the speed of movement of traffic at any given time and offer you the fastest route using AI.
  • Uber uses AI to determine ETAs for rides, computing optimal pickup locations, as well as for fraud detection.
  • When you upload photos to Facebook, the service utilises AI to automatically highlight faces and suggests friends to tag.

Of course, AI is not a replacement, or substitute for human intelligence. It is an entirely different way of reaching conclusions. Artificial intelligence can complement or exceed our own abilities: it can work alongside us, and teach us new ways of thinking.

While we don’t have the ability to predict the future, The BT Technology Timeline speculates that by the 2020s, AI entities could be given the opportunity to vote, by the 2030s, brain ‘add-ons’ will be available and robots that are physically and mentally superior to humans will be standard.

How improved technology affects customer expectations

Regardless of what generation your target demographic is, every SME will need to start looking at the behaviours and expectations of the ‘Uber Generation’ (under 25s – almost a quarter of the population). “These people base their customer satisfaction on how easy and fast a product is to use,” says entrepreneur Steven Van Belleghem.

Over the next five years, customer experience is going to be wiping the floor with price and product as the key brand differentiators. Customers are seeking personalised, human experiences — and ironically, AI will be key. Companies who don’t adapt to these changes are vulnerable to their competitors eating up their market share. Think Uber with the taxi industry.

“AI at its core is really about observation, and using those observations to make human experiences just that — just more human,” says Nick Edwards, CEO of Boomtrain. He calls it empathetic observation: moving beyond superficial, static snapshots of your customer. “Taking that story, taking those insights beyond just the superficial into something that’s deeper, much more empathetic, is where the stories really begin. Extending this empathetic observation at internet scale is really what the promise of AI-powered customer experience is really all about.”

Stewart Rogers, director of marketing technology at VentureBeat says customer expectations are going up. “The Direct Marketing Association recently did a study, and 45% of  people expressed an interest in AI approaches to engagement,” he said.

How businesses are adapting – the need for change

Industries have always evolved; we adapt. Just as horses were gradually made obsolete by the automobile, humans’ jobs have also been affected by technology e.g. self-service tills, drive through fast food and online shopping. What we do know is that when humans and computers work together there is unlimited potential. There is plenty of room to develop strategies that push innovation, capability, and creativity.

We will see improvements in the hiring process for example.  AI can help employers reach top level candidates, track job seekers behaviour and improve the job candidates experience by speeding up the process.

Paul Chong, director of IBM Watson Europe, thinks SMEs should increasingly see voice, rather than apps or web pages, as the best way to interact with customers. “In future people, won’t need to go to websites, it will all be about the conversation,” he said.

Are SMEs ready to embrace AI?

Yes. Optimism about AI is stronger within the SME community than larger companies, new research has shown. A study by Adecco indicates that SMEs will be leading the way in the AI movement and have a more open outlook when it comes to embracing new technologies.

Another survey of 160 businesses on ‘AI-readiness’, revealed that nearly half of firms believe the current wave of AI will be transformational and widespread; fundamentally changing the industry and markets they work in. What’s more, 78% of these firms believe AI can lead to greater efficiency and 71% believe consumers will directly benefit from AI.

Conclusion

Even though AI technologies have been in development for decades, and have been in use in some consumer services for several years, the past five years have seen an unprecedented level of interest and investments in AI. The need for further research to extend and improve what AI can do, will continue to grow as the technology improves and spreads. With the help of AI, technology will only become faster and smarter, and SMEs need to get on board.

We may be reasonably good at foreseeing the future e.g. driverless cars, smart homes and cities as well as the Internet of Things, etc. However, envisioning a future where robotics, cyborgs, augmented reality and artificial intelligence converge – will surely be a less predictable path – one that seems both exciting and unsettling right now.

We are accustomed to technology developing quickly, but that pace will increase and AI will drive much of that acceleration. The impacts on society and the economy will be profound. One prediction is that AI could add an additional £630bn to the UK economy by 2035 and contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy in 2030.

Over the next 60 or so years we will see technology making impacts on our life that might seem like magic to us but will be quite normal to our children’s children.

But as the great scientist Arthur C Clarke once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


This article was published by Netitude in February 2018.

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