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Businesses should say aye for AI

Dow Design digital director Michael Evans weighs in on one of the key issues facing businesses now and in the future.

I’m old enough to remember my mind being blown when I first experienced listening to a CD. My sister came home with a Walkman and the new Ace of Base album. I wasn’t even allowed to touch it for fear of scratching it’s soft, precious underbelly. Skip forward a bit and while Ace of Base naturally remains timeless, CD’s have all but disappeared, replaced with subscription services like Spotify. I guess it’s no surprise how frequently I feel like I’m living in the future these days. The rate of change has been rapid and we seem to adopt these seismic shifts in our stride. The ubiquity of video conferencing for example still amazes me and yet it felt like the realms of sci-fi, right up until it became a reality.

These days technology disruptions happen all the time – we almost seem to demand them. Yet for some reason, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is having to move incrementally, rather than a full sweep. It is understandable perhaps given the number of amazing dystopian warnings we’ve had (Terminator 2 is an all-time favourite) while a simple lack of appreciation of what AI can do is part of the roadblock. The reality of what AI really is right now is a lot more run of the mill.

‘Right now’ we’re not talking sentient robots taking over our lives. Rather, it’s more of a natural evolution in computer processing power and automation. AI bots (which I’m going to focus on in this piece), for example, are essentially programs that can automatically identify a request (such as a question), index it against a large array of possible responses, and, using powerful algorithms, pick the most appropriate reply. Those same algorithms allow them to index the feedback it subsequently receives, so that it can ‘learn’ to more accurately respond to similar queries next time.

That’s it, really. A massive and ever-growing capacity to automatically process information and provide an increasingly accurate response.

Now if you’re wondering what the future may hold for AI, it’s worth acknowledging that between them, Facebook, Amazon and Google now have direct influence of over 70 percent of internet traffic. If that is happening then our online future is going to be dominated by these three and they are all investing rather heavily in AI. Which is likely a reason why globally, 57 percent of companies either use AI chatbots already, or plan to do so in the coming year.

It’s no surprise really. Google, for example, is in the business of connecting people with information and this is a technology that can drastically shorten the user experience between problem and solution.

Though they may be driving the user base towards the technology, it’s not just for the big guns. There are plenty of locally grown examples too, which indicate what businesses can do to enhance their customer experience. One that stood out for me recently was created by Datacom and Nuance for the Australian IP office. Launched in May 2016, ‘Alex’ has supported over 50,000 consumer enquiries to date. That’s some incredible efficiency considering the curly and complex world of IP. Furthermore, AI bots like Alex are capable of talking to each other within the broader government network, referring users to each other and helping them navigate their way through the plethora of departments, further streamlining their experience.

Innovative companies like Air New Zealand have also recognised the potential, putting it to work in minor public-facing examples like its chatbot, Bravo Oscar Tango, or Oscar for short.

As a first dip into the world of AI, this is a pretty logical one. Any organisation that fields multiple queries from hundreds or thousands of customers every day can find value. Instead of people manning a contact centre, a web-accessed chatbot can understand the queries and then provide the information that customers are looking for or raise the conversation to a human. Done well, bots can be almost indistinguishable from people.

It’s this streamlining that makes the most sense right now as the technology quietly insinuates itself into our everyday lives as a legitimate, mainstream technology for consumers. It’s also thankfully becoming easier and less inexpensive to get involved, thanks to a number of cloud-based solutions and of course as processing power develops and becomes subsequently cheaper.

The key as always is to adopt the technology in a strategic way. When the ‘app’ or the ‘Facebook page’ all of a sudden became a competitive necessity, many brands simply went out and got one, without really thinking about why or what use it might really have. Simply defining the technology’s purpose along with achievable, measurable goals can be the difference between ROI and a white elephant.

Finally, in a world where big data is being likened to the new big oil, those who are using AI technology will be able to learn about their customers in an incredibly intuitive way as every interaction is essentially a data point (this also something for us all to consider as consumers). Imagine being able to differentiate your customers by the tone of voice or colloquialisms in a future of automated communications. This opportunity for brands to be more intuitive with their customers will allow more adaptability in such a time where data and technology can flip an industry on its head.

So. Not quite The Terminator or 2001 Space Odyssey. But more like the fax machine or the internet. These, too, were once considered far-away tools for businesses that seemed a little implausible for ‘right now’. The reality is that it’s actually already here, more is coming and we are all becoming more acclimatised every day.

The time to get involved is now. 

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