Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an area of computer science associated with the creation of intelligent machines that work and react like humans. Once considered a subject primarily for science fiction and academics, AI is now very much at the forefront of business, with companies such as Google, Intel and Apple all rushing to invest in the technology.

So, what exactly is AI and how will this emerging area of computer science impact your business in the coming decades?

What is Artificial Intelligence?

In short, AI is the ability of a computer program or a machine to think, learn and correct itself in a way that matches human intelligence.

Historically, the development of AI has been held back by the huge costs and technical complexities involved in its development. However, all this has changed as computational power becomes cheaper, cloud computing more widespread and the importance of big data more central to the technology giants of Silicon Valley; a confluence of factors that Mckinsey suggest is driving AI forward.

Will Artificial Intelligence affect my business?

According to most experts, developing true Artificial Intelligence remains a long way off. The race to develop it, however, is already shaping today’s business environment, with Forbes reporting over $10 billion dollars of venture capital investment for AI in 2018, representing over 10% of total US venture capital funding.

As well as investor appetite, AI has been identified as a top strategic initiative for 2019 by IDC, Forrester and Gartner.

IDC predicts that AI apps will be an integral part of an organisation’s enterprise applications and are set to drive more than $52 billion in global revenue by 2021, while Gartner is focusing on the emerging internet of things (IoT), where robots, drones and autonomous vehicles will reshape supply chains, delivery networks and logistical planning.

Forester is also bullish on AI, suggesting that businesses across the board will be taking the lead in pragmatically integrating AI technologies across sectors as diverse as retail, healthcare, education, finance and legal services.

Artificial Intelligence and employment

While the detrimental effect of AI on employment is still largely unknown, Fortune Magazine suggesting that as much as 40% of the world’s jobs could be replaced by autonomous robots and computer programmes over the next 15 years.

Such a dramatic change over a short period of time has profound implications for any business and many governments are concerned also.

Philanthropist and Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, is among those calling for a “Robot Tax” to incentivise companies to employ humans over autonomous software, protecting future jobs and minimising levels of unemployment.

What’s more, most commentators predict that it will be the most vulnerable, least educated employees that will suffer most from automation according to a recent study by CNBC. Also,  age and gender will play a role, with more automation in traditionally male industries and food preparation sector, where young people will be considered at the highest risk of automation in the coming decades.

Artificial Intelligence and productivity

Not everyone has a pessimistic view about the emerging AI revolution, however. Instead, technological optimists envisage a world where humans become far more productive working alongside autonomous software.

The author and futurist, Tim O’Reilly, is one such commentator stressing that with the right choices, machines don’t have to put humans out of jobs. Rather, they could create both work and leisure opportunities for us, akin to the invention of the steam engine, the internet or personal computer.

As robots and autonomous software replace traditional workplace functions, companies will have to become more agile and creative in their approach. This could include training smaller, highly-skilled teams of employees to work with AI to produce the same economic output as the traditional corporate behemoths of the 20th century.

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the FAANG group of technology companies that are most invested in AI today, the likes of which include Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google, are also among the most productive companies per capita currently listed on the stock market.

Artificial Intelligence and security

Unfortunately, as with any new technology, it is likely there will be a number of unforeseen risks to the development of AI over the next few decades.

Cybersecurity experts are among those most concerned by recent developments in machine learning. With many companies already struggling to protect themselves and their data from sophisticated hackers, the introduction of AI is predicted to up the stakes, empowering hackers with new tools and technologies to break down the encryption techniques that businesses rely upon.

There are also concerns that the AI revolution could disrupt financial markets, with advanced trading algorithms replacing human traders. This is, in fact, already happening, with the Flash Crash of 2010 attributed to a rogue trading algorithm powered by machine learning.

The primary risk in both finance and cybersecurity is that as machines take over from human operators, there will be fewer people who actually understand the core functioning of the computer programme. One day perhaps, we may even find that only machines themselves will understand machine intelligence, creating a potentially dystopian future.

Artificial Intelligence for small businesses

Artificial Intelligence also looks to be an enabler for the smaller business with Salesforce.com suggesting AI will be particularly exciting for growing businesses that want to:

  • Be smarter with leads to sell more efficiently
  • Drive an outstandingly great customer experience, everywhere
  • Pinpoint what customers want and adjust to give to them

So it’s not just the established technology giants that stand to benefit from the growth of machine learning, automation and algorithm data analysis.

Examples of AI powered applications that you can use as a small business today include:

  • Tensorflow – One of the most well-maintained and extensively used frameworks for machine learning enabling SMEs to write their own algorithms for business.
  • Keras – A library of programming for deep learning, based on Python, which allows for easy and fast product prototyping
  • Fasttext – Developed by Facebook, Fastext provides word embeddings and text classifications across Linux, MacOS and Microsoft Windows.

But you don’t have to be able to learn code to start incorporating AI into your business. It’s easy to start small by creating a ChatBot to support your customer service division.

Chatbots are an excellent place to start as their ability to interact and engage with customers, answer questions, and route inquiries provides invaluable assistance during peak periods, helping you reduce costs on permanent and seasonal staffing

It also improves customer service and retention — providing 24/7 call center services and, with the power of Algorithmic Language Translation, can even handle non-English language queries with ease.

How to plan for the future

Whether you are an AI optimist or pessimist, it goes without saying that all businesses should plan for a changing future.

Understanding the implications of this new technology for finance, cybersecurity, competition, the labour market and regulation is a good place to start, although it’s important to stress that commentators rarely agree when making predictions about the extent of AI’s impact and the speed of change.

Consequently, it’s important to conduct your own research with an open mind. Try to imagine how your organisation might look in three, five or ten years time and work backwards to incorporate that vision into your plans for today.

With Artificial Intelligence predicted to be just around the corner, it pays to be prepared for any eventuality to give your business the best chance of thriving in a brave new world.

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