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As emerging technologies go, artificial intelligence (AI) has certainly taken its time in making its presence felt.
Surprising as at may be, the term “artificial intelligence” has been around almost 70 years, having been coined back in 1955 by computer scientist John McCarthy (aka “the father of AI”).
Since then, AI has experienced a stop-start existence, largely due to sporadic funding and below-par technology. In truth, AI has arguably gained more notoriety for storylines of killer robots (and the occasional WALL-E) hell-bent on destroying mankind than for its practical use and business benefits. But that’s all changing.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution
Thanks to breakthroughs in computing power and the advent and availability of big data, cloud hosting/storage, highly sophisticated software and complex algorithms, the potential of AI is now starting to be fulfilled—with the business world being the biggest benefactor.
The market has reacted at pace. In recent years, billions of dollars have been invested in AI technologies by many, if not all of the world’s leading organizations, each of them looking to utilize some form of AI technology to future-proof and improve their businesses, and/or create a competitive advantage.
Intel, Microsoft, Facebook, Samsung, IBM, Google (Deepmind), Amazon, Uber, LG, Apple and Yahoo are just some of the 2,000-plus AI specialists in the field using and providing intelligent machine-powered services to businesses like yours.
Various estimates suggest that more than $46 billion will be spent by businesses on AI services by 2020, a figure rising to more than $51 billion 12 months later.
But What Is AI?
Before we go on, it’s perhaps worth just clarifying a few things about what AI is and is not. Yes, AI can mean robotics, but the best examples of AI are software, with no physical form.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands of often extremely technical and confusing definitions bandied about to describe AI. Indeed, entire books have been written on the subject—some better than others. (Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies is a personal favorite of mine.)
In its simplest form, AI is the study of methods for making computers behave intelligently so they can gain the ability to replicate various human capabilities. These capabilities include identifying objects and sounds, understanding languages, and reading and understanding content such as text and numbers.
Machine learning (ML) is an important branch of AI. ML takes a more cognitive approach in that the machine is endowed with algorithms enabling it to combine what it’s been programmed to do with a learning process whereby it gains knowledge from its experiences.
Where We Are
Depending on what you have seen, heard or read, you may have different ideas about what AI is and what it’s capable of at this stage. To offer some clarity, there are three simple levels to be aware of.
- Weak AI: AI capable of demonstrating human intelligence to carry out specific tasks.
- Strong AI: AI capable of showing self-awareness, the ability to think and make decisions for itself at the same level as a human being.
- AI Super Intelligence: AI showing levels of intelligence superior to human beings and fully in control of its existence.
For now (and for the foreseeable future), only weak AI is currently relevant, so it’s time to remove any images of a leathered up, sunglasses wearing Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It’s Already Here
Weak AI has been widely adopted and is in use today—you just might not realize it.
In fact, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’ve already unknowingly encountered some form of AI and machine learning technology. Maybe even before you got out of bed this morning.
Have you ever used Apple’s personal assistant, Siri? Or Amazon’s Alexa? Perhaps you’ve noticed how your emails can detect questions being asked of you and automatically provide a ready-made reply? And how your smartphone seems to be able to predict sentences you’re about to type as you’re typing?
For those who like a bit of online shopping (such as Amazon) or video streaming (Netflix), have you ever wondered how those personalized recommendations are determined? What about Facebook’s ability to not only recognize that there are people in the photo you’ve posted, but to sometimes identify them too?
They’re all using some form of AI, with the intention of bettering their customer’s experience, enhancing their financial opportunities and—unseen externally—improve their efficiency in the workplace.
AI for All
“We are at the cusp of a new revolution, one that will ultimately transform every organization, every industry and every public service across the world,” commented Ralph Haupter, president, Microsoft Asia. “I believe 2018 is the year that this will start to become mainstream, to begin to impact many aspects of our lives in a truly ubiquitous and meaningful way.”
You may be forgiven for thinking the implementation of AI is something exclusively for the Fortune 500 companies of this world ... but you’d be wrong.
Today, thanks to an ever-growing number of companies that exist purely to support businesses like yours grow using AI technology, access to intelligent solutions is now widely available.
In essence, AI is (or can be) a tool that can be packaged up and purchased on a monthly basis, like your broadband or cell phone service.
This model of AI as a Service reduces significant costs associated with custom, in-house solutions. Similarly, it also reduces complexity (the “it doesn’t matter how it works as long as it works” approach), meaning you won’t necessarily need to employ a qualified and expensive computer scientist or programmer.
“You don’t need to be a mathematics genius or have a Ph.D. in software engineering to make sense of AI for your business,” said Gartner analyst Whit Andrews. “You don’t have to make massive investments in infrastructure and personnel in order to start applying AI’s potentially transformative technologies.”
Andrews continued, “These technologies will transform the nature of work and the workplace itself. Machines will be able to carry out more of the tasks done by humans, complement the work that humans do, and even perform some tasks that go beyond what humans can do. As a result, some occupations will decline, others will grow, and many more will change.”
Why should you and your business consider implementing AI? Could it be just a fad? Will it really benefit you?
The answers are varied and will be unique to your own business. There may be some obvious areas of your business you’d like to improve on, be it financially or operationally motivated.
The magnitude and inevitability of AI cannot be ignored or underestimated. Many AI experts and professionals have described the potential impact of AI on businesses as being equivalent to the invention and adoption of the personal computer and email.
Some suggest that AI can help boost revenues by around 20 percent, while others warn that any business not at least thinking about adopting some form of AI could already be two years behind its rivals. Further delays could even result in their demise further down the road due to losing a competitive advantage.
Do or Die?
“More than one-third of businesses will not survive the next 10 years,” said John Chambers, the now former CEO of Cisco during a discussion on AI. “Companies should not miss the market transition or business model, nor underestimate your competitor of the future—not your competitor of the past.”
Ovum principal analyst Michael Azoff added, “Every business should at a minimum make itself aware of AI progress in its industry.”
The first thing to consider is what the purpose of AI actually is, and how it can benefit your business. The core benefits of AI can be narrowed down to these two activities:
- Solving existing problems.
- Discovering and identifying new opportunities.
The uses of AI are therefore extremely vast and varied.
AI is fueled by data, which can come in many different forms for many different uses. Emails, newsletters, subscriptions, views to your website, downloads and sales are just some examples of business activities that generate data.
On its own, that data may not seem useful. However, contained within it could be the difference between success and failure (profit and loss). This is where AI comes into play, where a machine may be able to do the job of a human.
A famous quote (within AI circles) from Michael Palmer of the Association of National Advertisers sums this idea up well: “Data is just like crude [oil]. It’s valuable, but if unrefined, it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc. to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so data must be broken down and analyzed for it to have value.”
Today, the bulk of that potentially valuable data held in companies is not being utilized.
“If we look at the amount of data which is actually being analyzed today, only 20 percent of the data we have is searchable and being used productively,” commented IBM chairman, president and CEO Ginni Rometty during a discussion on the subject. “The other 80 percent is held inside companies, generally not being used.”
Impact on Jobs
One of the more universal drivers for AI is automation—a word that can inspire fear when discussing the risks to people’s professions.
Administrative tasks such as data processing and data collection are widely viewed as likely to benefit from AI support, though AI may be able to replace human effort entirely in that process.
Some figures suggest almost half of all activities at work could eventually be automated, while PwC estimates AI-powered machines could take up to 30 percent of UK jobs by 2030. The Bank of England has estimated that 15 million jobs may be at risk.
The stark warning issued by Dr. Roman V. Yampolskiy, a professor in the department of Computer Engineering and Computer Science at the Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville: “If your work is repetitive and not creative, you will be gone very soon.”
Bart Selman, an American professor of computer science at Cornell University, was quoted as saying, “A lot of large companies have ‘middle management’ jobs where people manage other people at a very low level in terms of keeping track of things like vacations and sick days. Those jobs, I believe, are at risk. Jobs that involve a large routine component. If you’ve made the proper investment, you can develop an AI system that can take over a good fraction of those jobs. A lot of big companies have a lot of those positions and will be looking at it.”
Examples of automation and loss of jobs can be seen all over the world today. Some of the headline-grabbing stories include that of a Japanese law firm called Fukoku Mutual Life, which invested more than $1.7 million building an AI platform with IBM Watson, which has seen more than 34 staff replaced. The annual savings for the firm are predicted to be around $1 million per year.
“The next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas,” former President Obama stated in 2017 during his farewell address. “It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good middle-class jobs obsolete.”
Spotting an Opportunity
Another significant area for AI adoption is within sales. There are now examples where AI, using natural language processing software and specific algorithms, is able to spot patterns in data, identify new opportunities and provide analysis in just a few seconds.
Objectives can vary greatly. AI may be engaged to gain greater knowledge about customers’ viewing and buying behavior (for example, what they’re looking at and when they’re most likely to make a purchase). AI may also be deployed to identify the best time to send promotional material to specific customers rather than sending information en masse as part of a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy. AI could also be used to identify cold customers (those who haven’t transacted with you for a while) or undecided customers (those with potential purchases in their shopping carts) whose purchasing decisions may be swayed by a well-timed update or special offer.
AI in Action
Let’s take a closer look at some of the examples of AI technology in action that can be widely implemented in many different businesses and organizations.
Personal or virtual assistants have gained mass-market appeal in both business and consumer markets in recent years, with services becoming increasingly accessible and affordable.
Using speech recognition and natural language processing technology, the technology is able to understand and respond to both written and spoken voice commands in a human manner.
Popular examples include Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, but there are hundreds more.
Their functionality and uses continue to evolve and can integrate with many existing applications, including calendars, to-do lists, reminders, maps and even managing your meetings. More recently, these technologies are being integrated to control electrical appliances—AV, lights, shades, thermostat and so on.
Amazon recently launched “Alexa for Hospitality” for its Dot and Echo microphone and speaker products. The platform is designed to transform rooms (such as hotel rooms) into “smart rooms,” carrying out all the functions mentioned above, while also providing spoken information specific to the hotel (room service, booking a restaurant, laundry, tickets to attractions and so on).
One of the areas with the swiftest adoption of AI is customer service. As above, using natural language processing and machine learning, so-called chatbots or virtual agents are increasingly being integrated into websites, where they are able to have online conversations with customers in multiple languages to solve their queries in a human-like manner and, depending on the business, maximize sales opportunities. According to an Oracle survey earlier this year, around 80 percent of businesses want chatbots by 2020.
Such services are able to help reduce the number of calls to call centers, reduce wait times, enhance the customer experience and even reduce the number of required operators, thus saving money. Chatbots have become so realistic that it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between human and AI.
AI is able to monitor social media and online platforms, providing real-time insight about customers’ perception of a company, its products, a service provided or a new ad campaign. Analysis of feedback received can help a company acknowledge and rectify missteps and gain a greater insight into its audience’s attitudes and opinions.
While language translation technology has existed since the 1990s, the evolution of AI-powered voice-to-text, text-to-voice and voice-to-voice technology has reached speed and accuracy levels that enable language barriers to be all but completely removed. Microsoft and Google are two leaders in this space, providing on-tap services for businesses and developers alike.
Personalized News Feeds
On average, more than 2 million news stories are published online every single day. Facebook, a social media site with more than 2.23 billion users (more than a quarter of the planet’s population), uses AI to understand you as an individual, viewing your preferences, posts, shares and likes to provide a personalized news feed.
With shoppers spending more time online than ever, it’s becoming increasingly vital that companies maximize every opportunity to help customers find what they want—and even things they didn’t know they wanted.
To help support users, online companies are able to create a digital profile of each customer, monitoring their account for buying history and items viewed. This enables the seller to make recommendations it believes are relevant to the customer, while also sending reminders (via email or via other websites where it has advertising space) that an item is still in stock and/or any offers to help seal the deal.
AI technology is also being used to help retailers manage their current and future stock levels and predict increased demand by taking into account things like the weather and local events. For example, if the weather is expected to be hot, additional stock on water, meats and BBQs may be suggested (or automatically ordered), while cold weather might suggest more umbrellas and jackets.
Security: Fraud Detection
AI is transforming security, particularly in the financial space, with AI able to monitor suspicious spending activities 24/7, placing immediate blocks on transactions (online or physical). Financial institutions are even using past information (data) to help make decisions, such as whether a mortgage or bank loan application is accepted or declined.
In 2016, it was estimated that attacks on individual companies in the UK surpassed 230,000. On average, 1,000 company firewalls were breached, despite having what might have been considered the appropriate security measures in place. With cyberattacks becoming ever more sophisticated and methods changing by the day, AI can be used to monitor a company’s entire network 24/7, identifying anything out of the ordinary and either killing it immediately or suspending operations until the suspect process can be inspected.
AI is also able to detect unusual activity from members of staff, such as accessing information (a file or document) for the first time—again, either preventing it from being accessed or immediately alerting others.
The days of poor-quality black-and-white CCTV videotapes are just about over. These days, surveillance footage is captured in full-color HD and recorded to the cloud, where AI processes are able to view and analyze the video. In the event of something suspicious, alerts can be sent to the appropriate personnel, while sophisticated recorded facial recognition technology could help alert teams (i.e, in retail) when a known shoplifter has entered the store or area.
In the area of robotics, AI is increasingly being adopted in customer services and teaching environments.
Robots capable of identifying their surroundings (i.e, an obstacle, adult, child) have been used to provide additional support within hotels and hospitality, using speech recognition to answer questions from customers.
Hilton Worldwide has previously tested robots (including a model named Connie) at its concierge desks, to provide information such as directions to a local attraction and help in checking in or out, among other services.
Japanese firm SoftBank has deployed robots (their model is named Pepper) within its electronic retail stores.
Robots are also being used to provide teaching support within educational environments, answering questions from students on specific subjects and using a display or projector to provide visuals.
While not hugely relevant to this publication, it’s worth mentioning the transformative impact AI is having on healthcare. In the most basic healthcare implementation, AI virtual assistants that reside in mobile phone apps are able to converse with users to help them diagnose a condition, then provide professional advice on what to do next.
A more advanced AI model is being used by clinicians to help assist in the diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening illnesses and diseases.
For example Qure.ai is using image recognition deep learning software (such as that developed by Qure.ai) that is able to examine medical imaging (X-rays, MRIs and CT scans) and spot anomalies a professional may miss or may not be immediately obvious.
IBM’s Watson AI platform uses natural language capabilities, hypothesis generation and evidence-based learning to support medical professionals as they make decisions in diagnosing and treating patients. The physician might first pose a query to the system, describing symptoms and other related factors based on the patient’s medical records. Watson then mines the patient data to find relevant facts about family history, current medications and other existing conditions. It combines this information with current findings from tests and instruments and then examines all available data sources to form hypotheses and test them.
Watson can incorporate treatment guidelines, electronic medical record data, doctor and nurse’s notes, research, clinical studies, journal articles, and patient information into the data available for analysis.
Yes, it’s taken this long to mention the subject of driverless vehicles. Widely tipped to have the biggest impact on jobs—particularly in the U.S. transport industry (over 4 million jobs)—autonomous vehicles are already being tested and slowly introduced—albeit human-assisted.
Various self-driving technologies have been developed by Google, Uber, Tesla, Nissan, Mercedes and others.
Some of the key objectives for driverless vehicles include improving safety during a commute, with all cars communicating with each other and their surroundings to create a real-time digital map that continually assesses risks. As a result, reaction times are no longer required from a human driver in the event of, say, a sudden obstacle.
Driverless vehicles will be able to provide a new dynamic in the way people are able to work or socialize during a journey, while also helping to reduce congestion in towns and cities by connecting intelligently with things like traffic lights and emergency vehicles.
There have been several commercial examples, including self-aware trucks and Uber vehicles completing journeys, demonstrating that the technology is racing forward. However, progress has stalled somewhat and public opinion has been damaged due a number of high-profile deaths, including when a self-driving Tesla collided with a highway lane divider.
It’s predicted by Satista there will be as many as 2.1 million autonomous vehicles on the roads by 2025 and 20.8 million by 2030.
These are just a handful of examples of how and where AI is already proving significant benefits and opportunities for businesses all over the world.
It’s important to realize that these are all current technologies. The goal of this article is to communicate what is available today, not in some hazy time in the future.
The AI revolution is here and it will play a key role in the future of your business. When you decide to get on board is up to you.
We’ll leave you with this quote from Gartner: “As vendors exploit AI software capabilities within business suites, enterprise applications, infrastructure support services and the customer experience, your organization will need new or updated strategies. Ready or not, AI is coming to you.”
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