On 4 August 1997, Skynet, a US military developed program, became self-aware and began to think for itself. Operators tried to deactivate the computer system but the now ‘intelligent’ system perceived this as a threat and in order to protect its mandate of ‘safeguarding the world’ Skynet launched a nuclear war against humanity.
Since the birth of artificial intelligence (AI) in the 1950s, technology has been fixated by the creation of a machine that can reason and think for itself. And at the same time, fuelled by films and fiction such as The Terminator, humanity holds an inherent fear that, as in the case of Skynet, one day the machines will rise.
Far from apocalyptic, we are entering a new industrial age where the potential that automation holds for productivity, manufacturing and analysis is beginning to revolutionise industries through efficiency and insights into behaviours. This means as a society that we can better serve one another and at the same time, cut costs.
Firstly, let’s be clear as to what AI means and what the differences between AI and automation are:
The line between AI and automation is blurred because AI often underlines automation and it’s not obvious how to make a clear distinction between the two. Just as it’s difficult to separate machine learning from AI.
Artificial intelligence is an all-encompassing term that covers all technology that can mimic human intelligence and has been in development since the 1950s.
It wasn’t until the advances in machine learning were realised, that we had a breakthrough and the acceleration of AI powered products was made possible.
Machine learning is a specific technique that allows computer software to learn both from experiences and data, and this self-learning is what underlines the new era of AI.
Secondary to the development of machine learning, advancements in cloud computing have reduced the cost of processing power and have increased processing capacity and this too has allowed the algorithms of machine learning programs to realise their capability.
As a result, manufacturing and business is on the cusp of the mass adoption of AI and automation, which will mean both greater productivity and efficiency, and cheaper production costs.
AI is powering apps and systems that make everyday life easier for society and the reduction of errors are major benefits from artificial intelligence systems that are less prone to mistakes than a fallible human is.
AI can process data many times faster than a human brain and it has the ability to both unlock insights and make sense of data that people power does not have the capability to find.
By teaching machines to learn for themselves and to do the mundane tasks, we can enable ourselves to have time to focus on what we are best at – creativity, strategy and interacting with other people.
As we enter into the fourth industrial revolution, there is some opposition to the new technology and much speculation that jobs will be taken away – although automation is far from new.
This is not the first time we have experienced a backlash against new technology and the fear that it will destroy society.
In the 19th century, textile workers reacted against newly developed machinery that they felt threatened the livelihoods of master craftsmen and as the first industrial revolution unfolded there was much resistance from the working classes.
In protest, a group known as the Luddites smashed weaving machinery in the factories and the term ‘Luddite’ hence became synonymous with a person opposed to technology and automation.
In retrospect, the fears of the Luddites were unfounded and even though technology has advanced beyond anything they could have dreamed of, more people are now in jobs than ever before. The machines have not taken our jobs – they have freed us from the mindless repetitive tasks and opened our time to more complex, creative and fulfilling tasks.
AI and automation has far more benefits to offer business and society than any negative speculation is predicting. Employment will shift and adapt with the creation of new roles and careers, and society will evolve into a new era of thinking and creativity.
“Producers will only automate if doing so is profitable. For profit to occur, producers need a market to sell to in the first place. Keeping this in mind helps to highlight the critical flaw of the argument: if robots replaced all workers, thereby creating mass unemployment, to whom would the producers sell? Because demand is infinite whereas supply is scarce, the displaced workers always have the opportunity to find fresh employment to produce something that satisfies demand elsewhere.” – Kallum Pickering, senior economist with Berenberg.
Kallum Pickering, senior economist with Berenberg
Everyday examples of AI and automation
Although there is a blurred line, predominantly automation is about automated tasks and processes set by rules and AI is about self-learning and thinking.
Automation is applied to monotonous tasks such as manufacturing processes and admin purposes such as sending out invoices or personalised mailing. AI is applied to using algorithms to detect cancer from radiographs, home assistants that can answer your questions and order your shopping and monitoring security systems for any disruptions to usual patterns.
We are already surrounded by artificial intelligence both in our everyday lives and in business. We may not realise that Google Maps uses machine learning to calculate the fastest routes based on previous traffic flows.
Amazon suggests products we may like based on our shopping habits and the habits of others buying similar products. Netflix suggests what we may enjoy watching based on our viewing habits. Siri and Facebook are both powered by AI as an integral part of the user experience.
Personal and home assistants
Assistants such as Siri from Apple, Alexa from Amazon, Cortana from Microsoft and Home from Google all run on a ‘natural language interface’ which means you can converse with the device for a series of tasks and responses.
The standard of query recognition has improved drastically over the past few years and some devices are now identifying different users through their voice. Banks are also using ‘my voice is my password’ for telephone banking.
The assistants use machine learning to understand the behaviour of the owner and offer relevant options based on their habits. Basically, they learn what you like and tailor themselves to respond to that. The more you work together, the more they know you and can facilitate your needs.
Personal assistants are designed to take over repetitive and mundane tasks and as the Internet of Things grows, assistants will begin to integrate more with other devices.
In time, they will manage our home lives from ordering our groceries when the fridge is empty, to managing our heating and energy consumption more efficiently, to organising our family schedules and even monitoring our health with a prompt if we need to seek medical attention.
A car that can drive itself has the potential to free more of our time in our busy lives.
More importantly, once driverless systems are acceptable and when driver error is removed from the equation, the reduction in vehicle accidents and loss of life could be huge.
“One of the top causes of death for people is car accidents still and if you can eliminate that with AI, that is going to be just a dramatic improvement.” – Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook
In the UK (in 2018), ‘self-driving’ lorries are to be tested. A driver will control a vehicle at the front of a convoy with the other vehicles following being wirelessly connected for synchronised braking and acceleration, known as ‘platooning’. The possibility of a self-driving haulage industry could allow for lorries to drive longer hours during off-peak times and to be more efficient.
“Advances such as lorry platooning could benefit businesses through cheaper fuel bills, and other road users thanks to lower emissions and less congestion.” – Paul Maynard, former UK transport minister
Driverless cars are now also on the roads being tested by companies such as Google Waymo, Uber and Drive.ai, who are all competing to offer a self-driving hail-and-ride service.
Tesla offered the first production autopilot car that has gained much attention and Elon Musk is still striving to develop a fully self-driving car available to the public.
There is speculation that self-driving software is limited by the capability of current machine learning and that the systems are still too generalised and are years away from full realisation.
A car can be programmed to drive perfectly but it needs only one unforeseen circumstance that it doesn’t know how to react to, to render it unacceptable for public roads. As yet, we don’t have the fully self-driving car that technology envisages.
It is highly likely that you have already read content online that has been generated by a machine and not realised this. In another effort to replace mundane tasks, copywriting for basic content such as descriptions and reports are now being written by AI powered systems.
An AI-driven platform such as Wordsmith offers natural language generation and the capacity to scale content production.
The writing style is not likely to have any ‘personality’ but this is perfect for the financial earnings reports, product descriptions and basic journalist reporting on sports results that it is currently applied to.
In 2016, A computer called Benjamin wrote a science fiction screenplay but the result wasn’t anything to rival any creative talent. Computer generated content is useful to fulfil the mundane tasks but it will be some time before it can replace the subtle nuance of wit, intellect and individual style of the human writer.
The very first chatbot, ELIZA, was developed by a professor at MIT in the 1960s. Fast-forward to the last few years and there has been a huge adoption of ‘conversational agents’ as automated customer representatives, in order to replace the need for a person to sit on a phone and answer mundane questions.
A chatbot can simply be a basic, pre-programmed automated bot that can only operate within limited rules to answer set questions.
Or, it can be an AI driven bot with machine learning that understands language and which can constantly self-learn and get smarter, using the same natural language processing as a personal assistant. A chatbot can mimic human speech and simulate a conversation.
Usually employed as a live-chat representative to answer basic questions and enquiries, a chatbot also allows ordering of food, scheduling flights and asking for recommendations. Companies such as Starbucks, Wholefoods, The Wall Street Journal and Pizza Hut, to name a few, have all implemented a bot.
Trends now show more people are using messenger apps than social networks and this is the biggest area of growth that a customer-facing business should be focused on.
“People are now spending more time in messaging apps than in social media and that is a huge turning point. Messaging apps are the platforms of the future and bots will be how their users access all sorts of services.” – Peter Rojas, Partner at Betaworks Ventures
A sophisticated chatbot does require an investment in coding but Facebook Messenger has enabled users to set up a basic chatbot without any complex coding knowledge. Basically, anyone should be able to create a chatbot on Facebook.
Personalised products and news feeds
Amazon has been using an algorithm for several years that makes suggestions for personalised products based on your purchase and search history.
Both Facebook and Google also employ AI to generate the newsfeed and search results that are personalised to you.
The application of machine learning to learn a user’s habits and preferences are well-exploited but are nothing new when you consider that supermarkets have been scanning our consumer habits and offering unique vouchers for years.
Credit card security
If you have a credit card, then the possibility that you have experienced a ‘hold’ or ‘false decline’ on your card for no apparent reason, is frustrating and can be time-consuming to resolve. This is all down to the algorithms that banks use to scan for abnormal activity on an account which might signify fraud.
The system will suspend the card and highlight to an operator who may call you, or you will simply receive a text with the instruction to contact your bank.
How artificial intelligence is helping industries now
Freeing up our time from repetitive and mundane tasks benefits businesses so that they can focus on innovation. By creating more time for managing, rather than doing, then there is more time for developing and growing businesses.
One of the biggest applications of AI is within data analysis which can unlock insights for many areas such as security, healthcare and transportation.
No surprise that the keepers of vast amounts of data such as Facebook, Microsoft and Google have been leaders and big players in AI, as they try to unlock more insights from their mountains of data.
Some industries that are experiencing the biggest impact from AI include:
As an industry, healthcare is already benefiting from AI in many areas.
Diagnostics have seen the application of algorithms that can scan radiology images for tumours and which can detect lung and skin cancer far more effectively than the best radiologists. The processing time it takes to analyse scans is reduced and treatments can be applied much faster.
AI can analyse large datasets for the detection of diseases and also, to make informed decisions.
Data analysis can also offer input for optimised treatment plans enabling them to be better managed.
Virtual Health Assistants are chatbots that can field time-consuming appointment scheduling. Bots can also prompt people to take medication on time and on a more sophisticated level, they can provide both medical advice and answer patients questions.
The benefit to patients will be increased recovery rates and a more efficient healthcare system.
The major areas of education that can benefit from AI are through the personalisation of learning methods. A system can analyse how a student processes information and then provide tailored support to the student’s learning needs. When dealing with students with learning difficulties, a bespoke approach can help where they need it the most.
Intelligent Tutoring Systems are another form of AI bot that can interact with the student to analyse their ability and then offer tailored learning programs.
The other major area to benefit from automation is the mundane task of grading papers and work. This currently takes away teaching time from the student and by freeing up this time, the teacher can provide more hands-on teaching.
The classroom structure could evolve dramatically over the coming years from the impact of AI. More efficient learning environments, shaped to every possible learning style and ability, could be created so that every student gets the maximum support and help that they need.
As mentioned previously, machine learning algorithms can monitor the use of an account and put a stop on it when any unusual activity arises. AI systems are far more subtle in their detection than any person and can more accurately spot fraud and thus, more importantly, can reduce the number of false declines which currently hampers both credit card users and commerce.
Algorithms are employed in credit scoring and mortgage applications, which benefit from more accurate predictions and assessments.
The trading industry has been leveraging the power of AI for years. Automated Trading Systems are algorithms that can wade through vast reams of data for better data analysis and for speeding up trading decisions.
One of the more interesting applications of chatbots is in the managing of money and savings. For those willing to offer full access to an AI of their bank accounts, they can experience financial and savings advice on a micro level.
An app called Plum, monitors your spending habits and analyses your income to make recommendations of when and how much you can save and it will take small deposits out of your account and put them into a savings account.
Other banking chatbots do much the same and they can also offer financial advice and give money management tips.
As mentioned previously, self-driving cars and lorries have the potential to radically change the transport system, from haulage to hail-and-ride autonomous cars.
The major benefit to the roads would be the impact on safety by the reduction of accidents through the use of self-driving cars and also, by the use of predictive software for traffic flow. The paths of pedestrians and cyclists can be predicted and more allowance built into the road systems based on this data.
Traffic flow, especially in cities, could be monitored and analysed, with smart traffic light systems altered for the optimum flow of traffic at different times, resulting in less congestion at key junctions.
Haulage and courier services already use systems to plot the most efficient route for their drivers, both for speed and fuel efficiency, cutting costs of delivery.
Google Maps also uses AI to predict the best routes based on previous driver and traffic flow data, resulting in a more optimised sat nav system which is available to anyone.
How can a small business implement and take advantage of AI and automation?
The possibilities of AI and automation are vast and are set to radically change many levels of manufacturing and business. All well and good for a big business that has the resources to invest in new technology, but how can a small business start taking advantage of the new technology now?
Because of the internet and cloud computing, there are many applications of AI that are accessible to anyone and as we highlighted previously, AI is already integral in everyday life much more than we realise. The main areas of benefit for any small business lie in the automation of repetitive tasks and in the managing of teams and customer-facing assistants:
The core function of automated email platforms is to allow automated marketing emails following a triggered action. The system allows you to send tailored emails at the right time in a sales cycle to capture engagement.
Mailchimp is a market-leading platform which has many functions and offers so much integration with other platforms.
The development of automated email platforms has dramatically changed the face of direct mail marketing and is an essential channel for any business to leverage.
For several years, Google Docs and GSuite have allowed for synchronised updates by automating document sharing. With more flexibility and agility in collaboration on documents, this facilitates the growing trend of teams operating from remote locations.
The recruitment process has been automated with Applicant Tracking Systems which help to manage job applications. Systems such as SmartRecruiters or Zoho will sort and filter applicants based on keywords, skill set, years of experience, etc. Another time-saving system that frees up more one-to-one time interviewing candidates to ensure that you find the right hire.
Invoicing and online accounting
Bookkeeping is a classic area of mundane paperwork that is being revolutionised with automated invoicing systems such as Sage Business Cloud Accounting, which remove the need for manual data entry and automates invoice payments. Instead, more time can be spent on financial planning and strategy, for a more efficient business.
Automated process tools
If This Then That (IFTTT) is a powerful tool which allows a user to make their own processes, or ‘Applets’, to automate any task by syncing a multitude of platforms to facilitate the power of the Internet of Things.
IFTTT has many processes for a small business such as, logging time spent for time tracking, saving email attachments to Google Drive, logging calls to a spreadsheet, recording a Salesforce event to Google Calendar and countless more.
It’s difficult to remember a time before when we all used task management tools such as Basecamp, Trello and Google Calendar. The new breed of team management platforms such as Asana can facilitate teams in various locations with ease and automate both reminders and reports to assist in managing a remote (or not) team.
Slack is fast taking over from email as a tool to communicate in large organisations and has many features that can be automated such as, using a bot to reach out to every member of the team via a private message that is then shared with the team.
This saves time wasted in traditional meetings where every person can say what they are working on by collating a report for everyone to see simultaneously.
HR management tools such as, Sage Business Cloud People, can also help you to run and manage your workforce more efficiently.
The use of chatbots is a huge area of growth and for a small business can be easily implemented on a basic level via Facebook Messenger.
Using a bot to answer frequently asked questions and to manage enquiries removes time spent answering calls, leaving more time for focused customer management.
For a business with more resource, a bespoke bot can be coded to suit your customers’ needs and to automate more customer or client handling.
Service businesses can automate ordering or bookings without the need for a phone operative and other businesses can offer a knowledge assistant to respond to questions about your service or product.
The future of artificial intelligence in business
Although there is negativity surrounding the loss of jobs to automation, the bigger picture is that people carrying out mundane tasks can be deployed to other areas in the business which offer more value and efficiency. The workplace will evolve and restructure to accommodate this new revolution, as it has always done previously.
The possibility of AI and automation has many more benefits to offer, which on balance far outweigh any potential risk. For a small business, it could mean a vast difference to profits through increased efficiency that otherwise could not be realised.
Rather than the dystopian future of The Terminator, AI has the potential of a utopian future with better healthcare, workplaces, homes and society for all.