Don’t be left behind in the AI revolution

No matter what the sector, artificial intelligence (AI) will challenge your business; in many industries, it already is. There are three key and often linked ways in which AI will impact business: perception, prediction and automation.

We have been interacting with machine-learning for quite some time. Most of us will have experienced the frustration of a less than perfect chatbot, a conversational interface that is anything but conversational.

However, as the technology improves, so does the interface; last year Google Duplex showcased a voice-controlled interface to book appointments that can understand the nuanced conversation of the human on the other end of the phone and respond accordingly, even adding “um” and “er” for added authenticity.

Such a program drew on all Google’s knowledge of deep-learning, natural language processing and texture speech to handle context and conversation gracefully. But the technology goes further, with emotionally intelligent and empathetic robots reaching into our lives and our homes via gadgets and smartphones.

Far from being perceived as a frightening sci-fi movie brought to life, consumers are welcoming such interactions; 59 per cent of customers are open to companies using AI to improve their experiences and 87 per cent believe AI will transform their expectations of companies within the next five years, according to the State of the Connected Customer report from customer relationship management platform Salesforce.

Of course, this needs to be balanced against a wariness and concern as Salesforce’s survey also found that 62 per cent of customers were more afraid of their data being compromised than two years ago. The key is to define the areas in your business where an AI-enabled conversational interface will make the customer experience quicker, easier and more simple.

Many of these opportunities will be app-related; an AI-enabled loss adjuster, for example, which will be able to assess an insurance quote straight after receiving a photo of your dented rear bumper.

But not all are about the customer journey. Combine robotics, which has been quietly transforming the productive process for decades, with AI and you get collaborative robots that can learn valuable skills, such as quality control for factory production.

With a combination of sensors, internet of things platforms and AI-controlled analysis tools, companies will be able to utilise equipment more efficiently, predicting downtime and moving fast to minimise disruption.

This is not just about the technology, but is a mindshift in our dealings with machines. Virtual reality opens further possibilities for us to experience products, but no business can survive unless we actually buy those products. Here, it is AI’s predictive capabilities that are having the greatest impact. Big data is offering business an unprecedented means of optimising product manufacturing and stocking, while personalising the customer journey as never before, and all in real time.

Customer expectations are extraordinarily high in today’s interconnected world. Driven by disruptors such as Uber and Amazon, they expect instant results and will quickly dismiss companies that fail to provide the high levels of service shown elsewhere. Organisations no longer have the luxury of analysing feedback and customer surveys over weeks and months; the insights have to be actioned immediately to connect and engage with the consumer.

We are living at a time in which AI is rapidly finding its way into everyday life and the workplace; some advances happen so fast that today we can hardly imagine the things which will be possible tomorrow

Analytics companies know how huge this area is likely to be. According to market researcher Zion Market Research, the predictive analytics market is expected to be worth $11 billion by 2022; in 2016, only three years ago, it was a mere $3.5 billion.

Machines can help make decisions faster, with dynamic responses and behaviour-tracking that can put products right under the customer’s nose. But it’s about more than speed; it’s about a seamless journey that connects and engages whenever and wherever the customer wants. It’s about the ability to create an impactful interaction at each and every touchpoint, whether via the screen in our pocket, the machine-led phone call that is intercepted at just the right moment by a person or the human on the shop floor who can tap into our personal likes and dislikes in record time.

Customers have unprecedented choice in today’s global marketplace and AI can help create a much deeper, emotional engagement that distinguishes one business from another.

The third area of impact for AI is automation. Again, the field is not new, but the power and capability of present-day automation is driving new solutions. Instead of disjointed and sometimes siloed systems, AI automation is driving office work as never before, simplifying functions such as straight-through processing for invoices, but also opening up the possibility of more complicated automation including as driverless cars.

Such technology may seem many years away, but don’t underestimate the speed at which tech is moving; the high levels of investment – Toyota put $500 million into Uber’s self-driving cars in 2018 – are a clear indication of the possibilities.

Automation can be applied anywhere there is a repetitive task, saving time and money, and freeing up staff for higher-value work. Such a process requires businesses to upskill employees, which is a process that, as with any major innovation, can lead to tensions.

But it is up to all of us, whether as organisations and as individuals, to engage with this dynamic, rather than shy away from it; there is no doubt that automation can do the boring, simple tasks quicker, faster and, therefore, cheaper than humans.

From its earliest beginnings more than half a century ago, AI has been pushing the boundaries of human and machine capabilities. The processing power now available puts a range of analytics within the grasp of all sizes and types of business, and what used to take weeks can now be completed within a matter of hours.

Such technology does come at a cost, but without it your business is unlikely to thrive or even survive; other organisations will be deploying this technology to gain that competitive advantage. The key is to find those areas that maximise your investment in AI, either through data insights specific to your customers or by clever use of the human-machine interface.

But one thing’s for sure: this fourth industrial revolution will bring exceptional change. It is up to us to use it wisely.

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