From high-speed searches for data to enhancing engagement with clients, the sky's the limit, writes Alan Nelson

Although the term Artificial Intelligence (or AI) first emerged in the 1950s, it is currently high profile; it is being adopted for a wide range of business applications and is far more than simple hype. Indeed, the UK government is determined to make AI a cornerstone technology in its digital strategy.

The definition of AI is, however, vague, meaning different things to different people. To clarify this point, a 2016 report published by the Commons science and technology committee defined it as “a set of statistical tools and algorithms that combine to form, in part, intelligent software that specialises in a single area or task. This type of software is an evolving assemblage of technologies that enable computers to simulate elements of human behaviour such as learning, reasoning and classification”

Put simply, AI refers to technologies that are designed to perform in human-like ways. There are, believe it or not, already machines that have been developed to think like lawyers!

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Just as some humans can process data quicker and think outside the box better than others, the same is true of AI. Some of this technology follows the rules and works within the specific parameters it is given, while other forms are designed to have more of a free rein and genuinely think for themselves. Some of the value from AI will come through its deployment with other innovations such as sensor technologies and the Internet of Things. That has the capability to impact in so many areas of our lives – the food we eat, the cars we drive, the entertainment we enjoy and the way we monitor our health.

The key factors driving AI forward are the advancement in computing power through the evolution of the cloud and the creation of huge data sets. AI has the capability to leverage this new computing power, making it especially pertinent to a range of data-heavy industries including retail, banking and finance but it is also very relevant to the legal sector.

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Imagine a modern law firm working on a big project with countless junior lawyers trawling through documents looking for important data and connections. With the support of AI software, with the capability to spot connections between data not seen by the human eye, this could be done so much faster and significantly cheaper.

For the wider business community, AI also offers fantastic opportunities to drive efficiencies and enhance engagement with customers and other stakeholders. Using chatbots, for example, can improve a company’s customer service provision, providing easier and quicker access to information compared with a traditional contact centres.

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Other practical business applications include the use of sentiment detection for monitoring social media channels and other forms of customer correspondence; natural language processing which can be used in devices or within contact centres; and more customised means of customer engagement and marketing, based on harvested data.

Businesses can undoubtedly benefit from using AI but must understand what specific applications are being used for and, particularly for those operating within a regulated sector, be aware of potential risks as these could have legal implications.

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One key issue is data security and the prevention of algorithm hacking or infiltration by malware. With the implementation of GDPR, data protection is an essential consideration. Companies need to determine what they are doing with data and whether they have the legal rights to use it for any AI-based service.

Before implementing an AI process, businesses should also consider who is liable in the event of the technology ‘going rogue’ or developing systemic issues – the business itself, the end user or the software developer? This point also applies to IP ownership of AI where it is important to establish from the outset who owns anything newly created through the use of this technology. There is also the ethical angle to consider, ensuring the use of AI is appropriately controlled.

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As with other innovations that have emerged over time, mankind has shown a fantastic ability to adapt and embrace new technologies. While businesses will need to manage the risks, AI presents a huge opportunity.

Alan Nelson is a partner with CMS