In Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke’s 1968 ground-breaking masterpiece 2001: A Space Oddity, mild, monotone-voiced but all-powerful onboard computer HAL ends up killing most crew members of Discovery One while on its mission to Jupiter. The film perhaps best fictionalises the prospect that AI could even supersede humanity one day.
What is artificial intelligence?
AI refers to computer systems that can carry out tasks that normally require forms of human intelligence, for example, recognising things visually or through speech. AI systems can use human-like intellectual processes, such as the ability to reason, make decisions or discover meaning. The AI term “machine learning” refers to software that isn’t limited by programmed instructions; its behaviour is changed by data or results.
The term “artificial intelligence” was coined in 1956, however, revered computer scientist Alan Turing had been working in the field for many years. In 1950 he developed the Turing Test to determine whether a computer was “intelligent” and he was among the first to consider whether machines could think and learn.
For decades, AI’s development was slow, but then in the 1980s, when its potential became more widely recognised, large corporations began to save considerable sums by using computer systems that emulated human decision-making.
Impact of AI on jobs
A January 2017 report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that roughly half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055.
PwC’s UK Economic Outlook March 2017 placed the percentage of UK jobs at “high risk of automation by the early 2030s” at 30%. That risk appears highest in sectors such as transportation and storage (56%), manufacturing (46%) and wholesale and retail (44%), while AI is less likely to pose a threat to the jobs of workers with degrees when compared to those with GCSE-level education or lower, such as with industrial automation.
However, according to PwC, the “net impact of automation on total employment is unclear”, because greater application of AI will create new digital technology jobs. Moreover, says PwC, productivity gains will “generate additional wealth and spending that will support additional jobs of existing kinds”. So, mass unemployment isn’t an inevitable consequence of AI.
Potentially, of course, AI could enable many businesses to reduce their costs and boost their efficiency, productivity and profitability, while minimising their wage bills. And many small businesses are already benefitting from AI – some more than they realise.
Writing for Entrepreneur.com, Artur Kiulian says: “These days, small businesses can benefit from AI functionality embedded into popular CRM [customer relationship management] platforms.” To illustrate, he recalls, SalesForce launching its Einstein AI in 2016, which “can help small businesses analyse consumer sentiments in recorded phone conversations, emails, social media posts and customer reviews, evaluate the customer feedback, and adjust marketing and lead generation activities accordingly.”
As another application example, Kiulian writes about AI-powered platform Acquisio, “which manages marketing operations across multiple channels (eg Adwords, Facebook, Bing), analysing advertising performance and making informed suggestions about the best budget distributions in terms of pay per click.”
Welcome to the future
If all this sounds a bit far-fetched and futuristic, many small businesses are already gaining from others that are using AI to process huge volumes of data with great speed, efficiency and accuracy. And many search engines and off-the-shelf database, CRM, sales, financial and planning software employ AI techniques and machine learning algorithms.
AI systems are already enabling some businesses to better complete a range of tasks, from maximising returns from digital marketing spend and improved customer service, to capturing an employee’s expertise so it’s not lost when they leave to go work for another employer. It’s apparent that AI is the future and it’s already with us.
- Blog written by SME content expert Mark Williams.