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What is artificial intelligence (AI)

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What is artificial intelligence (AI)?

Artificial intelligence is a branch of computer science concerned with the development and study of machines that are capable of learning, making decisions, planning, problem-solving, and demonstrating other features of natural (e.g. human) intelligence.

AI is used in almost every industry in the world to facilitate repetitive tasks, generate new insights, and organize and understand vast amounts of information. Today, AI tools are readily available to businesses of all sizes, from entrepreneurs to enterprises, and companies that fail to make full use of AI are destined to fall behind the competition. 

Here’s a look at what AI does and how businesses can use it in everything from sales and marketing to customer service and operations.

What does AI do?

At its core, AI leverages data to make autonomous decisions about a given set of tasks or processes. The complex computational techniques and algorithms at its disposal allow it to operate more efficiently than traditional computer programs, and often more efficiently than humans.

Whereas traditional AI relied mostly on robust computing power to grind its way through millions of “if-this-then-that” scenarios, modern techniques like machine learning (ML) and deep learning (DL) which make use of, for example, artificial neural networks and are better able to approximate natural intelligence. As a result, AI can be used in a much wider range of scenarios than ever before. These include:

  • Revealing patterns in chaotic or extremely large datasets, like all the web searches running through Google right now or all the purchases being made on Amazon. 
  • Monitoring the real world and making situational decisions, e.g. to drive a car or reroute ground or air traffic. 
  • Understanding human speech and responding to written or spoken commands, like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.

How departments can use AI

AI is being used by businesses everywhere to boost efficiency, reduce costs, and improve work environments by eliminating repetitive tasks and facilitating operations. While bespoke AI solutions can be complex to create (although there are many open-source repositories available to developers), there’s a wealth of modern applications at businesses’ disposal to make use of recent advances in AI. 

IT

Unsurprisingly, there are a number of ways IT departments can benefit from AI technology. Many of the best cloud storage solutions for businesses, for example, are leveraging AI for smarter, more reactive security and more cost-effective storage choices, like dynamically shifting infrequently used files to cold storage. 

AI is pervasive among the best cloud computing services as well. Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud all include robust, flexible AI modules that IT departments can use to provide more secure, reliable services. 

Cybersecurity is another key role of IT departments that has evolved with AI. Desktop as a service solutions, for example, have become key in supporting a growing remote workforce, but managing devices is complex. AI can monitor device health, intelligently install patches, and monitor flow of information for thousands of devices. Smarter password managers are likewise making it easier for IT departments to manage access to information and software. 

Marketing

Marketing is another area where AI has had a big impact. Many of the best customer relationship management (CRM) programs, for example, are starting to make use of AI to better understand customer journeys, garner keener insights into sales, and boost customer engagement. 

AI writing is also becoming more popular, and while there is still a long way to go, very basic copywriting tasks can be managed by an AI. Many AI writing tools position themselves as research and organisational aids, and they can indeed be a boon to busy copywriters.

Customer Service

From a customer service perspective, the core AI-enabled technology is chatbots. These intuitive applications allow a much leaner team to manage a greater number of customers than ever before without becoming overwhelmed. Chatbots can respond to customer queries, direct them to the right person, even book appointments.

More advanced chatbots can be integrated into customer accounts, enabling them to check on the status of an order or ask for product-specific help. Alternatively, the same information can be used to identify the best representative for a customer based on their location, language, preference, and user journey. 

Operations management

Operations management typically involves overseeing a huge amount of information, organizing it into an easily comprehensible summary, finding patterns and sticking points in workflows, and making organizational decisions based on current situations.

These are all tasks that AI excels at, and while project and operations management has perhaps seen the least benefit from AI historically, this is sure to change. 

Popular project management suites like Jira are aware of the potential confounding effects of AI in team management but are still driving ahead with machine-learning-powered smart products that will make it easier for businesses to create, triage, track and collaborate on tasks. 

Communications

59% of individuals in a recent Jira survey said that communication is their team’s biggest obstacle to success. Unified communications are thus essential to meeting objectives and goals.

Fortunately, this is another area where AI is being put to good use. Companies like Zoom and GoToMeeting are leveraging AI to provide computer-generated transcripts and automatic action items, improve the remote video conferencing experience with smart backgrounds, and keep rooms more secure.

Features and benefits of AI

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Increased performance.

AI technology attempts to find the most logical, rational, and efficient ways to solve a problem. From a business perspective, this development means that when the technology is applied to almost any industry or process, performance increases. Even if you don't see a result right away, the increasing prevalence of machine learning means that over time, programs get better and better at solving problems.

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Diminished costs. 

Human labor accounts for a large portion of most companies’ costs and is hard to cut down without another option in place. AI technology offers a viable alternative by replacing some forms of human labor, especially the most repetitive ones. Many of the processes used by AI can be automated or run on a schedule, too, which saves more time and cuts extra costs.

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Less frequent errors.

The cost of human error is estimated in the tens of billions of dollars. It is pervasive, perhaps inevitable, especially when dealing with large amounts of information and repetitive tasks like data entry. These can easily be passed over to programs that leverage AI to help minimize mistakes and enable human workers to focus on the larger picture.

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Better use of data.

Data is the new oil. Businesses have come to understand this and are looking for new and better ways to leverage the huge amounts of data being generated by their customers. This is one area where AI is already having a huge impact. The best cloud computing services include AI-powered tools for managing, organizing, processing, and summarizing endless gigabytes of data for keener insights into production, marketing, sales, operations, and more.

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Growth takes center stage. 

HIstorically, employees have wasted a lot of time on menial tasks, like replying to basic queries or tracking deliveries. AI programs can take over these tasks, and, in many cases, do them much better than their human counterparts. When employees have the space to focus on more critical areas of their work, such as strategy and innovation, they can operate far more efficiently and effectively.

How much does AI cost?

While AI was once prohibitively expensive, today, many popular, inexpensive programs for businesses make use of powerful AI engines. 

Chatbots are one of the most popular and cost-effective ways to add AI to your business. Popular services like Landbot, with starter plans from $35 per month, and Intercom, from $79 per month, can quickly pay for themselves. 

Of course, sophistication and scope matters. The cost of these tools is very much dependent on what you want to use them for. To put this into context, an AI-powered email marketing platform like Mailchimp starts at $14.99 per month, while a full-blown marketing suite like Nexoya, which tracks critical metrics, optimizes sales funnels, aggregates marketing data, and more, will set you back at least $1,600 per month. 

Overall, AI pricing depends on what you’re looking to achieve. Simple solutions can cost as little as a few dollars per month. More advanced solutions that leverage powerful AI with advanced machine learning for enterprise-sized companies can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Apple spends more than $30 million a month on AWS, for example. 

AI FAQ

What is the difference between AI and machine learning?

Machine learning is one approach to AI. Machine learning algorithms analyze data to find patterns and develop rules based on them. The goal of ML is to improve at a given task by doing it over and over, refining the program’s technique each time based on some measure of success. Machine learning is used to drive the predictive typing in your phone, for example, and to provide better recommendations on streaming services like Netflix. 

Will AI surpass human intelligence?

This is a difficult question to answer and the subject of much debate. In some ways, it’s fair to say it already has. A simple AI program can respond somewhat intelligently to thousands of different users all at once; no human can do that. However, AI is not conscious; it has yet to demonstrate many elements of true intelligence, and fails utterly to grasp abstract concepts like morality or politics. 

The human brain performs roughly one billion billion calculations per second. In contrast, one of the fastest supercomputers in the world, IBM Blue Gene, has managed to produce a neural network equivalent to roughly one percent of the human cortex. So there’s a long way still to go. 

How will AI technology change business practices in the future?

One of the main takeaways from this article is that AI is particularly proficient at repetitive tasks. Freed from this—and as the definition of such tasks grows—human employees will be able to focus on strategy and innovation, where they still excel (for now, anyway).

It will also allow businesses to have a much deeper understanding of their customers, international operations, and competitors. AI will help businesses crunch through billions and billions of gigabytes of data to draw new insights. As AI comes to better understand human behavior, these insights will grow in number and depth. 

Finally, there are more and more “smart” devices making their way onto the market than ever before. Soon, everything will be connected, from the fridge in the staff room to the building security system. Even now, AI-powered connected devices are changing the shape of some industries, like fleet management and driverless cars.

Main takeaways

  • AI technology can be found everywhere, from chatbots and data analysis tools to cars and mobile phone apps. 
  • AI is already capable of taking over menial tasks within a business environment. This development enables employees to focus on more critical areas. 
  • AI makes it easier to summarize data and gain insights.
  • With a wealth of AI-enabled products on the market, it’s easy and inexpensive to leverage AI in all business departments. 
  • AI technology will impact the way businesses carry out essential practices in the future.

More on AI

AI is a rapidly evolving science and there are always new use cases to discover. For example, find out how the financial sector is developing more transparent AI technologies, or how AI technology is fast-tracking the global shift to renewable energy. Some believe that AI could eventually revolutionize the data storage industry too.