Artificial intelligence (AI) is a hot topic at the moment – and it’s going to stay that way. Not least because two tech billionaires, including Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, went head-to-head on the subject this week in a rather public spat!

While it might seem, at first glance, like the stuff of science fiction, it’s actually already playing important roles in many systems and services and there’s a good chance that your business is already benefiting from AI, whether you realise it or not.

We’re not talking about the kind of intelligence that holds a fully-formed conversation with you (though that technology continues to advance) but the ability of software to learn and assist us with tasks and interactions.

Using Quickbooks?

If you use, for example, an online accounting service, such as Quickbooks Online or Xero, you’re already using systems that make efforts to learn patterns and match data (such as bank transactions with sales, to speed reconciliation) to make your life easier. Taking that a step further we have the emergence of software which can look at your numbers, be they financial, sales or other key indicators, and help to forecast and predict. They use not just your numbers but typical patterns and trends found in wider data sets or by comparing you with their other customers.

The big question, of course, is how this might directly affect how you do business in the future?

The technology to harness AI is most obvious right now in the form of ‘bots’. Made infamous by the social media bots which rather slavishly carry out repetitive tasks such as retweets of messages containing certain keywords, this technology is now developing and opening up.

Hey bot, you talking to me?

There are graphic interfaces which will let you create your own bot, perhaps for customer service purposes. You can then deploy these programmes in places where your customers want to talk to you – in email, instant messaging, social media, or support windows on your website.

As we’ve already highlighted, they can’t do the job of a human being and hold conversations, but where there are predictable interactions which follow a flow chart, you can begin to see how bots can start to take the strain.

A great example is ordering pizza! Think of the typical conversation. You ask to have a pizza delivered by typing the request. The bot then knows there are a series of questions that must be asked: which pizza/s would you like? Would you like extra toppings? Deep or thin base? Do you have any special requests? With these satisfied, it can move on: where do you need it delivered (it can check against a postcode database to ensure you’re within delivery range)? How would you like to pay (you can be transferred to a payment gateway to complete the transaction)? If anything unusual arises in the process, the bot can simply and politely hand you off to a human operator.

Call waiting… and waiting…

Now think about the routines of your business. Where might you be able to speed up interactions or simplify processes for your staff and/or customers? No-one likes waiting in a call queue for an operator. But an AI programme could be dealing with a percentage of increasingly complex enquiries for you – and it can handle many more at once than a single person on a phone.

The big trick will be to integrate such a product into your existing systems and to do so in such a way as to cause no additional friction for your customers or staff. A clunky, badly implemented form of AI could destroy an otherwise strong reputation for customer service. And if it’s outputs don’t dovetail with wider working practices and various departments there’s a risk of a costly and disruptive disconnect.

Additionally, any introduction of software and hardware has to be done with security and maintenance in mind.

AI is undoubtedly going to become part of all of our lives. Some fear the ‘rise of the machines’ but we’re still a long way from the fictional SkyNet of the Terminator movies.

It’s not even a drive to replace human beings, more to use the digital data we’ve all been building up and will continue to build on to improve what we do and how we do it. The key thing is to be awake to the change and considering how it will impact on and benefit your business in the not-very -distant future.

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