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What Every Small-Business Owner Needs to Know About AI

What Every Small-Business Owner Needs to Know About AI

Advances in technology have put artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation tools in reach of even small companies, but it’s clear that some businesses are taking a wait-and-see attitude. A 2017 survey by MIT Sloan Management Review found that about 85 percent of companies believe AI will bring a competitive advantage, but only about 1 in 5 companies had incorporated it in some way. And while the benefits are there, it’s important to understand things fully before jumping on the latest solution.

“People think that the AI will solve their problem, and it won’t,” says Vivienne Ming, a theoretical neuroscientist who founded Socos Labs. “What it can do is provide a good solution and scale it out so it can reach many people.”

Here’s what you need to know about AI and small business.

The Goal Determines the Solution

AI tools aren’t something to pick up just because other companies have them. With the wide array of solutions and providers available, it’s important to determine why you’re interested in AI and what you want to use it for. For example, is it something you want to hire a developer for to add to your scope of service? Do you want to use it to research your own data or get insights into your market?

Doing AI on your own is fairly ambitious for small businesses that aren’t in the tech sphere, Ming says. “It requires a meaningful commitment with talent you have to hire and tech you have to manage,” she says. With the demand for tech talent at a high, this may be unreachable for small businesses until you’re ready to hire or contract with someone who can help you leverage AI to grow. In the meantime, analytics or automation software can get you the results you’re looking for.

AI Should Scale Your Strengths

Automation tools can help you make your processes more efficient, while analytical tools can quickly generate information about your customers or markets that otherwise would have taken much longer to find. But no matter what you use AI for, Ming says it should be used as a tool, not a replacement. “Find AI tools that make your employees better,” she says.

Your employees have specialized knowledge about your market and customers, she says, and the right AI tool will help them analyze and concentrate that information to make your business better. “Find tools that augment that experience, that make your employees even smarter.” Even with automated email programs, look for ways to make your existing staff more effective rather than cutting them out of the process, she says. “If you’re going to start the automating process, are you going to make employees better, or hire cheaper talent?”

AI Has Limitations

No matter whether you hire to develop or purchase an AI solution, keep in mind that it’s not a miracle worker. Research your AI options carefully, and once you implement a tool, practice good data hygiene to ensure you don’t introduce any biases or inaccuracies. And review all conclusions with a careful eye.

Data sets can be particularly problematic, Ming says. One company she founded was in the talent space, helping companies discover people to hire. But data sets of potential candidates tend to have the same traits as the people building the talent sets, as unconscious biases can inform what the idea of “success” looks like. Poorly built solutions may find a “what” for your question, but they won’t find a “why,” Ming says. Look for proven solutions that deliver the “why” to help you grow.