No matter your industry, and no matter the scale of your company, artificial intelligence for business will impact you.
The only question is how AI impacts your business. Will it be a mysterious force that leaves you constantly scrambling to keep up with competitors? Or will it be a tool you use to make your business more successful and easier to run?
The first step is to understand what “AI” means in practical terms. Then we can begin to understand what artificial intelligence for business means for you—and how you can use it to your advantage.
What is artificial intelligence?
We encounter artificial intelligence any time software mimics human thinking.
Some examples of AI we see every day:
- The predictive text feature on our phones. By analyzing everything we’ve ever typed, the software comes up with a probabilistic model of what we’ll write next.
- Music recommendations in streaming apps look at the listening history of millions of users, then recommend music based on what listeners with similar tastes enjoy.
- Map software analyzes road conditions, traffic flows, and congestion to recommend the fastest route to your destination.
It’s better to think of AI as a family of overlapping technologies, which can work alone or in combinations to do the thinking a human would do.
Here’s a simplified breakdown of the most common AI technologies:
By collecting large amounts of data—more significant than any human would ever be able to process—and then sifting through it, machine learning software can create its models for understanding the world.
For instance, an accounting app using machine learning might be able to create financial projections for your business by looking at past years’ accounts and building a model of what is most likely to happen in the future.
A subset of machine learning, deep learning uses neural networks—programs that mimic how a human brain learns and makes associations—to perform incredibly complex functions with lots of variables and “gray areas.”
Self-driving cars are the most concrete and substantial example of deep learning in action. So is GPT-3, a deep learning platform that can talk to humans, tell jokes, and even lie.
In powering deep learning applications, neural networks receive, process, and pass information between small, simple programs in a vast web—a lot like how the neurons in our brain work together. This leads to apps that are (more so than traditional machine learning tools) able to learn and act “naturally” like humans.
A broad category of operations, pattern recognition, encompasses the act of interpreting data based on a set of predetermined models—which may be changed on the fly as the software learns more about its subject.
A robotic vacuum that navigates your living room using simple sensors, and memorizes the best route for avoiding obstacles, is an example of pattern recognition in action. So are tools like Siri or Alexa, which recognize patterns in your speech to communicate.
Artificial intelligence in business
Artificial intelligence is impacting businesses at all scales. Luckily, in many cases, that impact is positive.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re overseeing multiple large manufacturing plants or doing freelance graphic design for a small portfolio of clients: AI is ready to work for you.
That’s because, far from requiring a host of in-house tech experts, some of the most widely used AI for businesses is available in the cloud, in the form of Software as a Service (SaaS). Once you’ve built out your SaaS stack, you’ve got a powerful suite of tools to help your business succeed.
Five ways AI can help your business flourish
AI is helping businesses succeed in many different ways. Still, these are the five biggest problems AI tools are helping small- to medium-sized businesses tackle.
1. Handling repetitive back-office tasks
Recurring tasks that eat up hours in the day are increasingly being off-loaded to AI-powered tools or sped up with their help.
For instance, apps that handle bookkeeping and expense tracking may use AI to analyze past entries and then categorize new ones. Or, inventory management software can use AI to anticipate when levels will get low and place orders. In both cases, day-to-day tasks are sped up or eliminated, saving you more time to focus on high-level strategy.
2. Streamlining data management
When your business relies on vast amounts of data to run operations, it’s a boon to have artificial intelligence that can sift through that data and provide human-readable insights.
For instance, operations that generate a lot of data input from sensors—like commercial greenhouses, water and electric utilities, and large-scale manufacturers—are increasingly turning to AI to create dashboards, reports, and early warning systems their human employees can use.
3. Managing customer relationships
Sales reps spend 32% of their time on landing new clients and 20% of their working hours managing their CRM, handling administrative tasks, and creating reports.
By automating repetitive tasks—like qualifying leads, drafting client communications, and grinding through data entry—AI can free up more time for reps to focus on conversion.
4. Tracking the competition
AI-supported software can track many information channels, from social media interactions to news reports. And it can sift through reams of data faster than any human being.
Several platforms—Crayon, for instance—take advantage of those capabilities to help you keep an eye on your competitors. That makes it easier to plan new product offerings, promotions, and price changes, without the high labour cost of constant research.
5. Running your marketing campaigns
More and more businesses are using AI tools to automate their marketing campaigns across multiple platforms. By crunching the data and finding trends, AI-supported software lets individual marketing professionals do the work of whole teams.
What does AI mean for workers?
The image of robots replacing human workers is a popular trope. But how realistic is it?
Most AI tools have not reached the point where they can take over the workload of a person. For instance, while AI may draft outgoing client communications and handle help requests through chatbots, it can’t communicate as naturally as a human being. Even if you have AI taking those parts of your business, you’ll need a person on staff to run and monitor the software and ensure it doesn’t make any mistakes.
In this case, as in others, AI operates more like an enhancement than a replacement, which expands the user's abilities rather than taking their place.
It can also handle the most repetitive parts of jobs, allowing human workers to focus on creative tasks. For instance, with AI managing ad buys and tracking performance, your in-house marketing expert can spend more time developing award-worthy ad campaigns.
Three artificial intelligence trends to keep an eye on
AI is changing fast, but SparkCognition Founder and CEO Amir Husain names three trends savvy business owners should watch out for.
1. Cheaper machine learning
As new techniques for training neural networks emerge, it’s becoming drastically faster and less resource-intensive to feed AI large quantities of data.
Soon, it will become much cheaper to adapt AI tools to your business—for instance, by feeding it every customer interaction you’ve ever had to create a human-like tech support bot.
2. Augmented creativity
Recent advances in neural networks, coupled with experiments by programmers and artists, are uncovering new ways AI can be used to complete creative tasks usually left entirely to humans.
For instance, shortly, AI may be able to write hundreds of ads for your product, all targeting different verticals, based on a few simple inputs from a human marketer. As the lines between human and machine thinking blur, creative workers will increasingly learn how to collaborate with AI.
3. The chance to leave competitors in the dust
Drawing on the McKinsey report Skill Shift: Automation and the Future of the Workforce, Husain believes some of the future advantages offered by AI will be so drastic that individual organizations will undergo quantum leaps, advancing so profoundly that competitors will never be able to catch up.
And when those opportunities arrive, the businesses that are already adopting and using AI in their day-to-day operations have the advantage.
Artificial intelligence is already having a significant impact on businesses at every scale. By learning the fundamentals of how AI works and incorporating it into how your business runs, you not only improve efficiency in the present—you prepare yourself for exciting changes to come.