Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Making Small Businesses More Profitable Through Machine Learning and AI

Image from Yusp.com
In today’s competitive business environment, small businesses are always looking for opportunities that will give them that certain “oomph,” that special something that gives them an edge over the competition. Developing a great product and providing over-the-top customer service is still foundational to success, but implementing tools and systems such as machine learning and artificial intelligence that streamline time-consuming tasks can help to increase that success. 

It doesn’t take a Stanford graduate to see the use of robotic process automation (RPA) in businesses like Amazon, or automation software being used by Facebook and Google, but it can be a little mind-blowing to consider that the same machine learning technologies can be used in your business. It’s not as large an endeavor or as big an expense as some imagine. If it can help your business to profit more, it is worth examining the realities of its implementation. 

What is Machine Learning?
For those of us who grew up watching the Jetsons, much of today’s business techno tools can seem a little out there. But like the operation our smart phones, iPads, air conditioners and cars, we don’t have to know how it works, just that it does. Machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence are technologies the can provide business solutions today without really understanding the ends and outs, but here is a quick, and extremely brief lowdown on ML and artificial intelligence.

In simple terms, machine learning is basically a class of algorithms allowing computers to perform pattern matching extremely efficiently. Even simpler, it is the machine’s ability to keep improving its performance without humans having to explain exactly how to accomplish what it accomplishes. Rather than being specifically programmed for a particular outcome, the machine learns from examples. These machines are built by humans, but the machines are learning from examples and using structured feedback to solve on their own problems. 

Around since the 1970s, with more being developed and refined over time, these machine algorithms have proven to be too costly for small businesses in the past. But now access to cloud computing resources, including vendors who make ML models available with a wealth of data generated by SaaS products, make it possible for small business to design their own machine learning models.

Machine learning improves business productivity because it allows you to automate different things. For example, if your business is one that has encountered various customer fraud issues, through machine learning, you can set parameters in your online checkout system that flags the finance department when a particular order is deemed to be medium to high risk. You can even set it to cancel high risk orders automatically before the order is processed.

Artificial Intelligence
Another futuristic term, artificial intelligence (AI), has finally gained some traction since Dartmouth math professor, John McCarthy coined the term in 1955. AI is providing advances in the areas of cognition and perception, currently creating breakthroughs in voice recognition. We see AI generating continuing improvements in products such as Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant. In fact, Stanford computer scientist James Landay conducted a study last year and found that speech recognition is now about three times as fast as typing on a cell phone.

The speed of AI developments is snowballing. Landau’s study uncovered that the improvement in speed of voice recognition didn't occur over many years, but during the summer of 2016 and is expected to gain even greater momentum over the next few years. 

Making ML and AI Work For You
To begin integrating ML and AI into your business, begin with your most pressing pain points. Where are they?

  • Compliance control issues?
  • Improving operational speed and accuracy?
  • Reducing or eliminating fraud?
  • Improving salesforce success rate?
  • Increasing customer integration?
  • Reducing employee turnover?

Implementing ML and AI into your business doesn’t mean you have to be a data scientist and start from scratch developing your own systems. Companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Salesforce, Google and others sell or rent the necessary algorithms and hardware. And the competition heat is on with more and more companies offering products and services creating competition and lower prices. One good resource is WorkFusion. With WorkFusion’s Smart Process Automation (SPA), businesses can digitize operations with RPA bots, cognitive bots, intelligent automation, analytics and more.

You don’t have to go big with ML or AI or wait until you become a $60 billion business. You can start small and allow your systems to improve themselves as more data is gathered and built into the systems. The future is here and the smart business leaders are learning to embrace and experiment with the various ML and AI innovations available today.

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