How Small and Midsize Businesses Can Get Started with AI
Artificial intelligence, or AI, is everywhere. When you think about it, AI has been here for quite some time.
When Netflix recommends movies and Amazon recommends products, that’s AI at work. In fact, the earliest successful AI program was introduced in 1951 when an Oxford professor “taught” a computer to play checkers.
Today, new AI tools, including many designed specifically for business applications, are being introduced almost daily. Did you realize ChatGPT, one of most popular AI tools on the market, isn’t even one year old?
Small and midsize businesses are feeling pressure to adopt AI in some fashion or risk being left behind. We spoke with Hamish Davidson, Founder of Integris, to get his perspective on how to get started with AI in a way that’s both strategic and practical.
What Is AI?
When asked for a simple definition of AI, ChatGPT responded with the following:
AI, or Artificial Intelligence, refers to computer systems and programs that can perform tasks that typically require human intelligence, such as learning from experience, solving problems, recognizing patterns, and making decisions.
Hamish prefers a simpler explanation.
“The definition I like states that AI is a machine acting in a way that seems intelligent,” Hamish said. “AI is such a vast concept. I think it’s helpful to break down AI in the simplest terms before trying to figure out how to use the technology to move the needle in your business.”
Planning for AI
One can quickly get bogged down chasing shiny objects, especially when new AI tools are constantly being launched. To ensure AI initiatives are more focused and strategic, small and midsize businesses should consider identifying a person or people to oversee AI projects.
“AI is transformational technology, possibly even bigger than the internet in terms of how it impacts our daily lives and businesses,” Hamish said. “The first step should be to determine who should ‘own’ AI and manage its use. This individual or group should understand the implications for the business and its customers, the opportunities AI creates, and the benefits and risks.”
Once the “owner” of AI has been established and you have a deeper understanding of AI’s capabilities and limitations, you can start to identify specific problems to be solved, bottlenecks to be alleviated, and goals to be achieved with the help of AI. Prioritize the challenges and objectives and start exploring.
Hamish recommends monitoring the website TheresAnAIForThat.com, which lists and categorizes AI tools as they’re released. As of this writing, the site lists “7,055 AIs for 1,950 tasks.” We wouldn’t recommend investigating every new tool, but it could give you ideas for use cases that you hadn’t considered.
Start Simple and Small
Given the immense potential of AI, it can be tempting to dive headfirst into AI and bring it into as many areas of your business as possible. Identifying one or two applications for which there are clear benefits is a safer, more manageable approach. Once you get comfortable using AI, you can investigate additional applications.
“I would probably start with repetitive tasks that don’t require human judgment or strategy but require large amounts of time and resources,” Hamish said. “This is the low-hanging fruit that a free or low-cost AI solution can handle out of the box with little to no programming.”
For example, adoption of virtual meeting platforms like Zoom and Teams skyrocketed during the pandemic. There are AI meeting tools that will automatically “take notes” and transcribe the meeting. They can also provide a synopsis of the meeting with key points and action items. This allows people to stay more engaged during meetings and move the project along after the meeting without waiting for a manual recap or watching the entire video.
Chatbots can be programmed to provide basic information that customers request frequently, and they can do it 24/7. These AI-powered tools can often respond more quickly and efficiently than a human customer service agent. Issues that go beyond AI’s ability can be escalated to a human agent, who will be able to spend more time on more complex customer service tasks that require problem solving and empathy.
As you gain confidence in AI for basic applications, you may want to test more advanced AI capabilities involving large amounts of data, such as market analysis, forecasting, and predictive analytics. AI can analyze complex data and extract insights much faster than humans and could potentially identify new trends and revenue streams before your competition.
Proceed with Purpose and Caution
Most importantly, explore and test AI with the goal in mind. What problem will it solve? How will it make you more efficient? What is the business benefit of each application, and how will that benefit be evaluated and measured?
Of course, even the most results-driven process can’t guarantee everything will proceed flawlessly.
“It’s important to recognize that AI is not perfect,” Hamish said. “AI can be inaccurate. It can show bias. AI is only as good as it has been trained. Tap into the power of AI but don’t proceed with blind faith that AI will do exactly what you want it to do every time.”
In addition to understanding AI’s limitations, be aware of potential security and compliance issues. Be very careful about the type of data you feed into an AI tool. Those who oversee your AI initiatives should lead the creation of AI policies to reduce the risk of misuse, abuse, and legal problems.
Finally, approach AI as technology that’s not intended to replace people, but to help people, enhance their performance and productivity, and give them the freedom to focus on tasks that only humans can do.
“Collective intelligence that combines the best of human intelligence and artificial intelligence is truly the panacea,” Hamish said. “When you’re able to find the right balance, the sky is the limit for what can be accomplished, not just from a business perspective, but in terms of solving problems on a global scale.”