Artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the world’s fastest-growing tools for organisations large and small, and the Covid-19 pandemic has generated numerous opportunities for businesses willing to embrace the technology.
AI had a global value of $39.9bn in 2019 and it’s predicted this will grow year-on-year by 42.2% between now and 2027, while the UK government’s 2020 Digital Strategy states that 90% of all jobs will require some form of digital skills within the next two decades.
Companies are utilising AI to help strengthen various assets of their day-to-day operations, ranging from sales and customer service, through to product inventory, business forecasting, accounts, smart personal assistants, security and process automation.
All of this, in combination with the pandemic-forced trend towards remote-working, means that businesses are becoming increasingly reliant on new systems and technologies to retain ambitious plans for future growth.
What is AI?
So what exactly is AI, and how can it be put to work to meet modern workplace demands?
AI tackles many of the most mundane, repetitive and large-scale challenges organisations face by delivering massive improvements in speed and efficiency, allowing staff to focus on more challenging demands and quality interactions with a firm’s clients and other stakeholders. In other words, AI either automates tasks or helps manage and perform more complex activities.
It does this by making use of uniquely designed algorithms that allow systems to learn and duplicate patterns to perform tasks such as responding to client enquiries, analysing and deciding insurance claim outcomes, developing new products, improving marketing activities, or even enhancing robotic production lines.
AI also helps remove many of the assumptions that businesses can base key decision-making on by interpreting large amounts of data and extracting patterns and trends that could otherwise be missed.
Take, for example, a retail business selling products online. AI-powered “deep learning” can help operators with issues including product categorisation by placing different goods into associated groupings, and then automatically labelling them for sale, adding special offers and flagging other marketing benefits.
Similarly, product distribution and delivery is becoming ever more accurate thanks to AI, often with minimal or no human intervention.
Supply chains have always been data-driven and the success of e-commerce depends on the implementation of flawless logistics that meet modern customer expectations for products and services that can be found, ordered and delivered efficiently and quickly to their doorsteps.
AI-managed warehouses now focus on predicting the smooth flow and replacement of stock as potential congestion-points are identified and eliminated, ensuring channels keep running smoothly 24/7. At the same time machine learning algorithms have the ability to automatically improve tasks without direct programming, using predictive modelling to make operations better.
Building AI into your organisation
To take full advantage of AI businesses need to place it at the very centre of their operations. A key starting point is to ask which tasks within an organisation are most suited to benefit from AI.
For example, how can a business improve its quality and use of “big data”—extremely large information sets that can be analysed to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behaviour and interactions—while also aligning outcomes with strategy?
One solution is to examine how existing roles and processes are currently performing and where opportunities for improvement might best sit. This process is closely followed by questioning how changing over to a more AI-centric culture can be best managed.
One piece of good news is that it’s now possible for even relatively small organisations to develop their own AI resources by using a selection of readily available open source technology, such as Google’s TensorFlow or Microsoft’s Cognitive Toolkit.
Three examples of how AI can help your business
Chatbots enhance customer service
The role of AI has changed how businesses engage with clients and the overall customer experience. AI-powered chatbots, which can often be developed and implemented in a matter of days, have come to the fore during the Covid-19 crisis by catering to various demands.
These systems are constantly improving and are widely recognised as a revolution in customer support, often providing the most suitable answers for FAQs and other high-volume enquiries. During these busy times customers are struggling to get the answers and support they need as service agents have adjusted to working remotely, often with very disjointed resources. This has resulted in lengthy waiting times and a build-up of unanswered client calls and messages.
Not only can chatbots efficiently provide customers with information, they also act to troubleshoot problems; support clients 24/7; help identify trends and anticipate complex customer requirements while managing real-time conversations.
With in-person selling having been drastically reduced or in many cases made impossible by Covid-19, the pandemic has rapidly accelerated many businesses’ plans to switch from physical retail to online selling.
Using predictive modelling tools to analyse customer relationship management (CRM) data helps businesses discover patterns that would otherwise go undetected, providing valuable insights into how to best target future or existing clients and improve current customer retention. For example, investing in e-commerce to connect with buyers is now a necessity for the majority of companies looking towards a post-pandemic world. Another important point is the customer’s need to find and research services and products ahead of making a purchase.
The retail sector is already benefiting from AI deep learning, adding value through the careful cataloguing and consideration of customer needs. Product categorisation is one example where AI can efficiently collate different product ranges into respective categories automatically, and then tag items with the correct label.
It can help to think about the sales process in its entirety. What product, service, volume or price should be offered, and through which channels? It’s important to listen to customers and anticipate and react to their changing demands.
A growing number of organisations are also using AI to provide first-hand experience of their products through augmented reality in combination with AI. This allows customers to, for example, virtually place furniture items in their own homes, changing colours and style before deciding on purchasing the real thing.
Digital selling of this kind offers huge advantages by enabling businesses to make rapid decisions in real time.
The transport and supply of goods is something all retailers have to manage, and with the support of AI the process is becoming increasingly accurate and efficient to the point where little or no human intervention is required.
The supply chain has always been data-focused and the success of e-commerce depends on flawless logistics as customers increasingly expect quick delivery to their doorsteps.
For example, warehouse management can be improved by AI predicting points where congestion might happen, and then strategically circumnavigating these routes or channels to ensure processes continue to run smoothly.
Predicting demand and capacity enables organisations to improve investment decisions and planning. This means greater efficiency in forecasting sales and taking action to distribute stock closer to customers before they even decide to order, reducing overall time and shipping costs.
Automation software brings additional intelligence into data-intensive processes and, in the current environment, every bit of digital information that competitors produce is also available to analyse in order to make better decisions.
Looking to the future
AI supports humans by helping us reduce manual labour and enhancing productivity, and in this sense businesses can benefit from its enormous potential to add value.
In this era of super-connectivity and AI there is an ever-increasing need for new and advanced digital skills and a vital objective of UK industry has to be to increase the number of learners in AI and data science, including new talent from under-represented groups and diverse backgrounds.
This is one of the key objectives of a new consortium, including the University of Gloucestershire and ten other universities, which has recently been awarded £3.7m in funding to develop postgraduate courses in AI and data science.
AI is clearly accelerating progress towards greater automation, personalised client contact and processes across every section of the supply chain for local, national and global organisations.
Its implementation enables businesses to make intelligent decisions which drive profit and growth and, despite the impacts of Covid-19 and resulting global economic shockwaves, there is a growing confidence in AI’s unique abilities to identify and capitalise on patterns and opportunities.
It is expected that more enterprises will continue to adopt this data-driven strategy and come to better understand the value of the information they already own in the coming months and years.
Our industries are set to be revolutionised by AI.
Professor Kamal Bechkoum is head of the school of computing and engineering at the University of Gloucestershire.