Artificial intelligence, or AI, has been on the horizon for a long time. Many would argue that it's not just on the horizon, but here already. Terms such as "machine learning" and "cloud computing" are thrown around by not just technology experts these days, but also regular people.
The advancement of AI is, in one way, demonstrated by its performance in the game of chess. In just the last decade, the technology has developed enough for an AI to learn the game from almost nothing and reach the skill level of a grandmaster.
The mainstream spread of AI is in progress, like it or not – and businesses stand to gain value from the services it can provide.
Businesses are already adopting AI-based technologies, with one survey from 2016 reporting that 38% of the participants currently use AI – and 56% of the survey participants who reported not using AI expressed their intent to begin with these technologies in 2018.
The usage of AI and other technologies that rely on it hasn't receded since then. In this article, I'll tell you some of the ways that these new AI technologies can improve the lives of business owners and their employees.
1. AI can enhance your sales department.
Sales is not just a field of business, but an exercise in psychology where the employee must find the right approach to accomplish their goal.
Employees working in sales not only require knowledge of their business and products, but must also interact with clients and quickly read whether a conversation is going well or not. Normally, this is a hard thing to do over the phone.
However, AI has a chance to change this for the better and reduce the pressure on employees to read the situation on their own. AI may be able to detect the tone of the client on the phone and use that info to aid the salesperson in their job.
Judging tone without speaking to someone face to face is notoriously hard. It’s often said that 93% of communication is nonverbal. Of course, this number has been contested heavily. But the spread of the statistic goes to show that many people place high value on the nonverbal parts of communication.
Salespeople talking to clients over the phone don't have the luxury of observing nonverbal cues. This is why, once technology allows for it, AI can enhance the overall efficiency of the sales department a great deal.
Most salespeople aren't psychologists. Artificial intelligence with machine learning can likely do a better job of "reading" the client than a salesperson can alone.
2. AI can predict customer habits.
Targeted advertisements are a controversial subject, and we've all seen them before. Head to certain pages on the internet and advertisements displayed on the top or the sides of the screen promote product recommendations tailored to you, the viewer. These tailored ads can change quickly, offering different products if the user changes their browsing activity.
These advertisements, however, are rudimentary compared to the ones that are possible with artificial intelligence. AI is set to make waves in the world of e-commerce and online advertising. That's because it can predict customer behavior far more accurately than existing methods.
The human brain is the most effective tool; machine learning and neural networks are designed to replicate its functions. While they aren't perfect at this task, these technologies are much more effective at predicting customer habits than the existing model that uses tracking cookies.
This will be a mixed bag for many customers. Targeted advertisements are uncomfortable for a lot of people, for a number of reasons. The Harvard Business School studied the subject of targeted ads and found that there's many ways these ads can cause shoppers to lose trust. For example, the customer's desire for privacy will outweigh their appreciation for the advertisements if their data is unacceptably shared with a third party.
As the amount of information gathered on customers grows, so does the responsibility of both large and small companies to secure that data and keep it from getting into the hands of unwanted third parties. AI data collection systems may find more information than someone is comfortable with. Rather than just track the terms they've searched to offer relevant advertisements, machine learning models may analyze their habits at a deeper level to help businesses make predictions that would have seemed psychic 20 years ago.
3. AI boosts productivity.
Sometimes, the most useful innovations aren't the ones that reinvent the wheel but the ones that make existing jobs easier. If a job is completed quicker, the time saved can be used for other things. The rise of computing, for example, reduced the time spent on jobs like accounting. While the job once needed records kept manually, many things can now be handled digitally and take less work.
In the future, we may see AI similarly aiding employees across many types of jobs to improve their efficiency and cut down on the time it takes to complete many tasks. In a 2015 survey, 80% of business and tech leaders claimed that artificial intelligence creates jobs and increases productivity.
As AI technology improves, productivity gains will likely improve also. To use an example from my beloved game of chess, AlphaZero's DeepMind was able to learn the game from just basic knowledge before developing its strategies further and becoming dominant against human competition.
The most important thing about the experiments done with AI and chess is that they prove the usefulness of AI in other applications. The same learning ability that allowed DeepMind to develop the skills of a chess grandmaster can find applications in the business world, most obviously in areas where work is mostly digital.
As an example, someone who previously spent time organizing spreadsheets would be able to spend that time on something else by using AI to handle the organizing more effectively than a human could.
Another person working in the customer service industry might have a reduced workload thanks to an AI chatbot solving problems for some customers, with customers who still have problems after chatting with the AI being directed to speak with humans.
Sometimes, the boost in productivity comes from information. AI can go through data automatically that previously would have needed manual analysis by human workers.
In the same survey where business leaders claimed that AI increases productivity, 59% of respondents said that using AI and big data technology together is highly effective at turning data into information that can solve problems.
While businesses using AI once sounded like an idea from science fiction and cyberpunk literature, it's becoming very real. The time of AI being an obscure and emergent technology is also passing – business leaders are already vouching for its effectiveness.
AI isn't without its problems. Some of its useful features, such as increasing the ease of collecting data on customers, have been criticized for being consumer-unfriendly. In a world where database breaches and hacking are real dangers, few people want more information about them ending up in businesses' hands.
However, the rise of AI in business is inevitable, just like the rise of any new technology that enhances productivity greatly. Not only that, but it's becoming mainstream. Plenty of people who aren't familiar with AI in business at all have heard of DeepMind, and Microsoft has very publicly featured its Azure AI in the new Flight Simulator game, which may be played by millions after its release.
In chess, AI has even changed the way human players are approaching the game by exposing new and unconventional strategies. For once, AI has developed enough for us to learn from it instead of the other way around. It can teach us about playing chess, but in the future, we should expect to see similar stories from more "serious" fields.
With the landscape shifting in this direction, businesses have a lot to gain from embracing AI early and avoiding fear of new technologies – while still considering the effects of their actions on things such as privacy.
These new innovations can have both positive and negative effects, but at the end of the day, it's up to businesses and governments to use them responsibly and avoid turning public opinion against such technologies.