Comment: Harnessing AI has big potential for smaller firms

Self-driving cars are one of the most obvious applications for artificial intelligence technology. Picture: Contributed
Self-driving cars are one of the most obvious applications for artificial intelligence technology. Picture: Contributed
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While major firms have been early adopters of AI and machine learning, Salvatore Minetti argues small firms have so far been slow to embrace the potential

In 2014, the late great Stephen Hawking said of artificial intelligence: “This could be the best thing that we’ve ever done, or our last.”

It encapsulates the paradoxical views that have surrounded AI for half a century. On the one hand, machine learning (ML) – the ability for programmes to self-evolve – has triggered fears that computers will one day usurp mankind as the dominant force on earth.

On the other hand, AI has been hailed as the next epoch of the digital age, bringing new scope for advancements hitherto not thought possible.

Those risks and opportunities were highlighted in last week’s House of Lords Select Committee report on AI which urged a code of conduct for its development in the UK.

Ultimately, it’s time to accept that AI no longer exists in the realm of fiction; it is very much a reality. And for businesses, the time has come to understand how this technological innovation could be used to transform the way they operate.

In years gone by, companies have relied on business intelligence tools to provide insight into past events – analysing data to assess why things have unfolded the way they did.

Even big data technologies, while providing greater insights into more complex events, were primarily backward facing in the answers they provided.

However, AI has the potential to flip this model on its head. By analysing huge amounts of data from a wide range of sources, AI can establish outliers and trends in real-time.

Importantly, it can then recommend – or immediately undertake – proactive actions. Put another way, AI produces forward-thinking results; it helps businesses understand how events are most likely going to play out, and where necessary enables them to change those outcomes.

Consequently, by helping people make more intelligent decisions, AI has a vast number of uses for all manner of organisations. For example, tools available today can generate new hyper-relevant leads for sales teams; dramatically streamline R&D for new products; and precisely hone personalised marketing activities to individual customers, to name but a few of the most common uses.

Indeed, AI-powered solutions are already present in many of the technologies that businesses and consumers use on a daily basis – from Amazon’s suggested products and Google Map routes through to Uber rides and email spam filters.

In the months and years to come, the level of sophistication will only increase, as too will the potential use cases for AI and ML.

Importantly, the proliferation of AI tools is not just good news for the aforementioned tech giants. Even microbusinesses stand to benefit significantly from the rise of this rapidly evolving tech.

At present, it is reported that just under a third of UK SMEs are using AI within their operations. In truth, there are few barriers stopping that number increasing in the near future.

In terms of costs, thanks to the massive uptake of cloud computing in the past decade, the “as-a-service model” is now available for many new technologies, including AI. This frees small businesses from the burden of having to raise capital to invest in or develop their own software, infrastructure or platforms – instead they pay annual or monthly fees to receive enterprise-level tech at affordable rates.

This means that neither huge expense nor in-house expertise is necessarily to adopt AI tools. Moreover, SMEs actually have a real advantage over their larger counterparts due to the fact that they typically have fewer IT legacy systems to consider, less red tape and quicker sign-off processes.

As such, those small businesses that take a proactive approach to educating themselves about the transformative potential of AI, and then source relevant solutions from respectable providers, are in a strong position to gain competitive advantages over slower moving rivals. That is why it’s critical that time is not wasted; AI has arrived and there are great opportunities for companies that place themselves at the forefront of this tech movement.

Following in the footsteps of business intelligence, cloud computing and big data, there is a huge amount of hype around AI and what its real-world applications will be for businesses. And it is now clear that amidst all this buzz, the solutions are developed and ready for mass adoption.

Indeed, it is forecast that between now and 2025, the value of the global artificial intelligence market is set to rise from $2.5 billion to a staggering $60bn. So while a technology still in its relative infancy, there remains little doubt about just how far-reaching its impact will be.

The key for businesses is to ensure they don’t get left behind.

- Salvatore Minetti is founder of Prospex, which has developed an AI-based tool that generates sales leads for SMEs.