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Artificial Intelligence – What exactly is it and how can it benefit SMBs?

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Not so long ago, the term Artificial Intelligence brought to mind images of human-like robots, talking spaceships and mechanical assassins sent back from the future through a rip hole in the time/space continuum. With examples like those in our collective subconscious, it’s no wonder AI used to seem like science fiction – a far fetched idea generated in someone’s imagination that could only ever come to life on the big screen.

Fast forward a few decades and our perception has changed dramatically. Artificial Intelligence is not only real, it’s part of our daily lives. From virtual assistants like SIRI, Alexa and Google Home to self-driving cars and facial recognition technology, AI has not only become an integrated part of today’s world, but also an important tool that improves efficiencies, identifies problems before they occur, compiles and processes massive amount of data, and generally makes tasks of all kinds easier while producing more accurate results.

For all these reasons and more is AI is great for small and medium sized businesses.

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But what is AI exactly? And how can it help SMBs improve?

AI basically boils down to a couple of fundamental concepts: machine learning and deep learning. These two terms are often mistakenly interchanged, so it’s important to be clear on what each implies.

Machine Learning

A basic definition of machine learning is: “Algorithms that analyze data, learn from it, and apply that learning to make informed decisions.” Music and television streaming services use this type of AI extensively, making suggestions for new songs and shows based on users’ past selections. ML involves a lot of complex calculations and coding that results in a specific mechanical function. If you had a lighter with ML technology, it would soon start to flick on every time you said the word “flame.”

Deep Learning

In the most practical sense, deep learning is a subset of machine learning (which is why the two terms are so frequently interchanged.) Although it functions in a similar way, the capabilities of deep learning are much different than those of machine learning.

Whereas ML algorithms need to be manually adjusted for improved accuracy, DL algorithms determine on their own how accurate its predictions turn out to be. Let’s use the lighter as an example again. If the lighter learned the word cue “flame”, via DL it would soon figure out that it should flick itself on whenever phrases like, “light a candle” or “make a campfire” were said. DL models are designed to analyze data using logic that functions like the human brain – a kind of artificial neural network that can make its own decisions.

So How Does AI Help Businesses?

When you apply ML and DL technology to specific areas of business, right away we begin to see how Artificial Intelligence can help companies improve.

Take customer service, for example. Customer Relationship Management systems that utilize AI have transformed how businesses interact with customers, gathering vast amounts of data (including preferences and buying patterns) and synthesizing it into useful information used to target customers with specific offers, updates, and predict when they are most likely to buy.

The customer service applications of AI naturally lead to marketing applications for the technology. The key to effective marketing is of course, understanding your target market, and AI produces insights that are far more personal and revealing than old school focus groups and customer surveys ever have been. AI is used to maximize the effectiveness of cost-per-click ad campaigns, create highly personalized web experiences, create targeted online content and devise intelligent email campaigns, among many other marketing tactics mentioned in this post by the Content Marketing Institute.

There are practical applications for AI as well, particularly for SMBs who often face challenges related to staffing and completing (if ever getting around to) menial tasks. The technology has evolved from automating huge systems to becoming a highly personable and supportive technological resource that SMBs can “employ” to cover online conversations and perform important functions such as inventory and accounting. AI has the ability to cover the processes and responsibilities of a lot of entry-level positions. The only difference is, AI doesn’t glean a salary.

Many business professionals may not realize that one of the best sources of AI is already in use at their workplace: Microsoft 365. Features like My Analytics, the “Tell Me” box, and the Insights function in Microsoft Excel (among many other features listed in this blog post by Avanade) offer support, ease workloads, and create efficiencies for businesses every day. Online software services such as Zapier can help streamline their daily AI features by moving important information between web apps automatically.

AI for SMBs may seem overwhelming, but it’s important to begin considering how the technology can benefit your business and keep you competitive. The key to getting started is to identify where your biggest time drains are, operationally speaking. Without question, AI can make a difference.

Topics: small business IT, artificial intelligence, AI