Mar 07

What is machine learning & what does it mean for SMEs?

In recent years there has been a growing hubbub over AI and its various applications to the world of business. Now, while those of us with fond memories of the Terminator films may be somewhat perturbed by this, in all honesty, it’s not likely to reach Skynet capabilities any time soon. Machine Learning, to give it its less threatening and more accurate name, is more like a well trained dog at this point. It’s really good at searching through data sets and digging up insights your company can make use of, then using feedback to get better at its job. A digital data-hound if you will.

It still has some problems at the minute, but the difficulties we face with AI are more along the lines of “if people don’t understand how it reached its conclusion they can end up avoiding its recommendations”, rather than “its hacked the Pentagon and fired the nukes”

Typically, you’ll find machine learning involved in projects dealing with masses of data: self-driving vehicles prototypes, health industry drug development and fraud detection for the financial services. But recent developments mean they’re also now in easy reach of much smaller businesses than ever before!

Machine Learning for the masses!

Tech companies who have channelled funds into developing their own Machine Learning projects (Google, IBM and Amazon for instance) have started making use of the Software as a Service boom to provide pre-trained models to companies without the budget and expertise to create their own. In effect you can now pick up access to algorithms, data and massive computing resources like you would a word processor or security solution. You don’t need to install any software or run your own servers, heck, many of the tech companies will even provide a free trial to ensure the product is actually the sort of thing you need.

There is a lot of hype around machine learning at the minute so it is imperative businesses understand what the software can and cannot do. You want to focus on features that will bring value to the company and avoid the shiny object trap.

Reading robots

First up, if you’re drowning in admin, you might want to make use of AI’s capacity to process huge amounts of information in a blink of an eye. This can involve anything from paperwork, files and meeting minutes to your overflowing email inbox, archived messages and memos.
By cutting down on the time employees have to spend churning through documents in search of the right information, AI can help an SME get more comprehensive insights into their processes, and so arrive at better-informed business decisions.

The communication demands of the modern-day workplace mean employees are constantly bombarded with messages displayed across a range of apps, chat windows, deadline reminders and emails. AI can help staff effectively navigate this quagmire, prioritise communications, acquire and share information and reduce time wasted on distractions. With each distraction recently estimated to set an employee back 20 minutes, this is a godsend for SME running on a bare-bones workforce.

Talk to me!

On the other hand, AI’s ability to analyse natural language can also be put to use in social media listening. This can provide excellent info about the perception of your company and products by your community at large and can rapidly build up tangible metrics for brand analysis.

For those of you unable to carve space out of the budget for your own customer service team, a Chatbot may be the solution for you. These handy little AIs are complex enough to respond to customer queries and problems for you or escalate them over to a specific department where necessary. They make use of their rapid data processing ability to analyse available information on the customer and provide automated yet personalised answers. All in all, a significant reduction in the number of human staff members necessary to provide effective service for clients.

Beyond simple text, AI is also able to get to grips with both 2D and 3D image recognition and there have been some great ways developed to use that. You could, for instance, improve and simplify how customers search an online catalogue or allowing technicians to find a replacement part by simply photographing the original. 3D imaging AI has even started making inroads on QA for manufacturing.

We’re sure all this functionality will provide some great opportunities for SME owners on the hunt for ways to give their businesses an advantage! If you’re after some more ways to leverage the digital world, make sure you also check out the other articles on our blog. There are all sorts of useful info, tips and tutorials!