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Artificial intelligence and machine learning aren't just for the big guys

The hype surrounding AI and machine learning is cacophonous - and small businesses hoping to take advantage of emerging technology might be fearful the cost will be even greater than the hysteria. But it doesn't have to be that way.

A Google web search for "artificial intelligence" produces more than 68 million results; the same search for "machine learning" returns almost 65 million results.

Sifting that knowledge base for useful information would be a huge task in itself. News stories related to the terms tend to focus on key words such as transformation and revolution. With the level of hyperbole now at its maximum level, executives in all organisations are struggling to work out how these powerful emerging technologies can support business use cases.

Smaller firms should be just as interested in machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) as their larger counterparts. Yet small business owners hoping to take advantage of emerging technology might be fearful the cost will be even greater than the hysteria. The good news is it doesn't have to be that way.

Smaller businesses can use the cloud to dip their toes into AI and ML cost effectively, choosing to take advantage of external service provision and to scale up when the business case is proven.

Taking first steps forward

AI is an emerging area with a complex array of tools and services. Yet state-of-the art shouldn't mean prohibitive. Look for a partner that aims to demystify AI and ML, helping your business reap the benefits by making emerging technology more accessible to developers and non-developers alike.

A cloud-based approach will allow your organisation to scale its requirements for AI and ML as business demands flex. Work with a partner that has the scale to offer you both the opportunity to expand your AI services exponentially, but who also has a broad range of tools to help you hone your ML approach carefully and cost effectively.

So, where might your business be able to use emerging technology? Be very wary of suggestions that AI will help you reduce workforce numbers. While industry hype suggests AI is closely associated to the replacement of human with artificial labour, definitive proof of such statements is thin on the ground.

AI is a novel and fast-emerging area. Right now, AI is best thought of as a tool that your smaller business can use to augment the skills base of its existing workforce. Rather than replacing staff, SMBs with well-organised data sets can use ML to plough through information and develop insight that can help improve business performance.

Think of a crucial area like support services. ML can be used to codify common responses and provided automated responses to basic requests, perhaps via a chat bot. Rather than being bogged down by enquiries, your support specialists can focus on higher-value support tasks that keep customers happy and increase the likelihood of repeat business.

Sorting data and services

The impact of emerging technology in terms of freeing-up staff time doesn't have to be restricted to support services. ML can also be used to help your sales team win more business. The technology can help analyse potential leads quickly and demonstrate positive customer sentiment, particularly across areas of unstructured data, such as a social media streams.

The key point to recognise is that any firm that collects huge amounts of information, and which needs to analyse that data quickly, can probably find an effective use for ML. The effectiveness of your implementation will be directly related to the business case you create, so ensure you don't buy technology and then look for a problem.

Instead, focus on the challenge you face, whether that's sifting vast amounts of data, searching for positive customer experiences or improving the automation of support responses. If the business case exists, you might find AI is a cost-effective solution to the challenge you face, as long as you work with capable partners.

But before you rush head-first into AI and ML, do your due diligence on your data. Ensure your information is organised and accessible in a single, flexible location on the cloud. Think about how the information you hold is associated to services you use, and how containerisation might allow you to create new flexible, services in the future.

Right now, ML and AI are serious considerations for big firms - estimates from Constellation Research suggests 60% of C-level executives plan to increase investment in AI by more than half this year. But with Gartner expecting $3.9 trillion in AI-derived business value expected to be generated globally by 2022, there's every reason for your firm to start exploring its options as early as possible.

Conclusion - Seizing the moment

It's easy to get sucked in by the hype of AI and ML, yet smart executives go beyond the hysteria and develop strong use cases for emerging technology. That focus on use cases is as true for smaller firms as it is for global enterprises. Small business owners should start investigating AI and ML now. They should work with leading partners to investigate how their products and services can be improved and optimised with emerging technology.