Artificial intelligence sounds like some futuristic science fiction technology. But AI is already here. And it’s not just for big companies and universities. Smaller businesses should be thinking about it too. According to tech reporter Mary Catherine O’Connor, “If your company is not embracing artificial intelligence, it is going to suffer.” And in the world of IT, nobody wants to be left behind.

So how can your company make use of artificial intelligence today? Here are a few ideas. (Want to go deeper into AI? Check out Thinking Machines: The Artificial Intelligence Debate.)

Improving Processes

Business processes are at the heart of your enterprise. Business process improvement (BPI) is a well-developed methodology to help companies do a better job at delivering products and services. In a generic sense, a business process includes tasks and activities that contribute toward the achievement of organizational goals. AI can help with that.

“Artificial intelligence can help identify patterns and define current conditions, as well as important signals in a process,” writes Sherri Lonon for the website Business Administration Information. She sees business improvement as a kind of group storytelling where all the business stakeholders contribute. The use of AI to collect and map this information can make the storytelling more complete and accurate. “Building on these knowledge libraries,” says Lonon, “AI can help develop optimal workflows throughout an organization.”

As Faheen Shahzeb points out, AI can also be used to monitor productivity and streamline business tasks. He says that it can “help reduce labor intensive processes and factors like human error that can cause inefficiencies in work processes.” AI can also replace workers – but that’s a subject not everyone is comfortable with.

Writing Stories

This section header is enough to make any freelance writer shiver in his boots. But artificial intelligence could one day make the tech writer profession go the way of the typist. Robo journalism has its own topic on the Huffington Post, and the site hosts an article titled “Will Automation Upend Journalism?” The Associated Press is already using AI to write Minor League Baseball articles.

This may be bad news for struggling writers, but it could be very good news for struggling businesses. The software company Yseop touts natural language generation software in a variety of use cases, such as financial workflows. Imagine trusting your computer with the creation of your company’s documentation – reports, manuals, brochures. Is the software mature enough? Maybe it will take longer to put freelance editors out of work.

Dealing with Unstructured Data

A few years ago IBM said that 80 percent of worldwide data was unstructured. Keeping up with the exponential growth of data is a challenge for every business. “We are really just beginning to unlock the potential of unstructured data,” writes Greg Satell for Forbes online.

In our definition of unstructured data mining, we talk about dealing with data that is “text heavy” or “hidden” in imprecise documents. Unstructured data comes in a variety of forms, such as Microsoft Word or PowerPoint files. The raw data can be textual or non-textual.

IBM’s Watson offers a service called Natural Language Understanding. Here is how they summarize it: “Analyze text to extract meta-data from content such as concepts, entities, keywords, categories, sentiment, emotion, relations, semantic roles, using natural language understanding.” Yseop offers similar services.

Assisting Customers

Satell calls virtual assistance “the first and most obvious way to use artificial intelligence.” By now we all know about Siri, Google Now, Cortana and Alexa. Using an AI virtual assistant (not to be confused with an outsourced human assistant) can provide support for customers who want to know more about your business.

Chatbots are a form of virtual assistance. Marketers are adopting such applications to help with customer interaction, and they are becoming available to average businesses. Chatbots Magazine has a post about the best AI chatbots online.

Shahzeb talks about “making services more accessible.” He writes about the development of a Starbucks app that takes orders. Whether it’s a chatbot, messenger bot or some other intelligent app, there are many options available for online customer service. (To learn more about uses for AI, see 3 Amazing Examples of Artificial Intelligence in Action.)

Increasing Sales

Alex Hillsberg writes about how AI can impact sales. “Using machine learning, predictive analyses, and big data analytics, AI can now automate routine tasks, unearth insights off sales data, and assist sales reps in enhancing overall service.” He cites a Harvard Business Review study that claims that AI increases sales by 50 percent. If so, it's time to rewrite the sales books!

The authors of the Harvard article talk about salespeople developing a “machine intelligence.” They say that “the sales role is going to change completely.” They also say that machines are already doing a more effective job than their human counterparts.

Conclusion

With all this automated assistance, it makes one wonder when we will be able to start up the machines and then go home to our flower gardens while they do all the work. The Atlantic magazine published an article in 2015 called “A World Without Work.” Will machines make workers obsolete? Who knows? In the meantime, AI can be a valuable tool for any business even today.