The marketing world is buzzing with talk of Artificial Intelligence and one of its friends, Machine Learning. The concept of what defines AI has changed over time, but at the core there has always been the idea of building machines which are capable of thinking like humans.
These terms seemingly strike fear into the heart of many a marketer. Is AI just the latest buzzword? Do I actually need to understand it? Even if I do, can Artificial Intelligence be applied within my business?
The AI Squad
As with most new technology, AI comes with a squad of new terms to get your head around. One of the key things to remember is that there’s a huge amount of overlap between terms – no one really knows the boundaries as of yet. We’ll be using ‘AI’ as an umbrella term, but the other important squad members include;
Artificial Intelligence is the broader concept of machines being able to carry out tasks in a way that we would consider “smart”.
Machine Learning is a current application of AI based around the idea that we should really just be able to give machines access to data and let them learn for themselves.
An algorithm is a set of mathematical instructions that can be followed by a computer. Generally visualised as a flow chart, these rules are followed in a particular order to process an input value into the desired output, whether that’s sorting data or solving a problem.
The basic idea behind a neural network is to simulate lots of densely interconnected brain cells inside a computer so you can get it to learn things, recognise patterns, and make decisions in a humanlike way.
Deep Learning is a type of Machine Learning which removes the need for ongoing human interaction from the equation. Rather than a programmer telling an algorithm what a ‘better’ result looks like, deep learning is able to make those assessments itself.
Is AI just the Latest Buzzword?
No, in fact the term Artificial Intelligence has been around since 1956, and the concept considerably longer than that. If you’re a veteran in the marketing world you’ll already know that AI is already deeply ingrained in marketing and commerce. It exists in everything from search engine results to product recommendations, and personal assistants to fraud detection.
Why is it such a hot topic right now?
It’s pretty much down to the exponential growth of cloud computing; no human is able to deal with the sheer amount of data that is out there – from purchase histories to location data and user preferences, marketers have access to unscalable amounts of data, but in order to use all of this data it needs to be processed. AI is able to march in and take away some of the strain.
Front and Centre
As expected the world’s top technology companies are leading the way.
Google has enhanced its core search engine, Gmail, Google Street View, Google Photos, Google Translate, YouTube and other applications using AI.
Amazon has long used AI to recommend products in its e-commerce business, and it employs robots to move products around fulfilment centres.
In the past few years the company has also brought in some revenue by selling Amazon Echo speakers through which people can talk to Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant. While Alexa’s speech recognition isn’t perfect, it does quickly respond to user input, and it plugs into an increasing number of third-party services and devices.
Apple has looked to AI to recognise handwriting, lengthen device battery life and even find the text that could be selected in PDF files. Siri uses deep learning now, and the company has recently announced the HomePod speaker that packages up Siri.
On the whole, Apple has sought to differentiate its AI efforts by emphasising privacy. The company has not published much of its AI research, although it did recently hire a prominent researcher, Russ Salakhutdinov, as its director of AI research.
Where do we go from here?
Firstly, more of human labour could be automated. Drivers at app-enabled cab companies like Uber and Lyft, for example, could find themselves without work as self-driving cars using AI become acceptable for everyday travel.
Beyond that, 20 years from now, an AI system with superhuman capabilities in most domains could emerge.
Depending on a number of factors, this could be either very good or very bad. In an extreme case, these systems could end up making humans extinct. But if things go well, perhaps they will be something that will supercharge humans and help them live longer.
For now, what people generally see is narrow AI (intelligence applied to a small number of domains) and it doesn’t always work the way it should. You only need to look at Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant or Siri – they misunderstand spoken words all the time.
One thing to remember is that the biggest companies in the world are now investing in AI like never before. That’s a trend that is not about to stop.
Applying AI: Don’t Just Jump on the Bandwagon
AI has a very broad spectrum as we’ve explained, think long and hard about whether implementing Artificial Intelligence would create a better experience for the majority of your customers. Examine the specific problems that your customers face and whether AI offers a way of solving them. Most importantly look for opportunities to create better user experiences, if your issues are to do with scale – too many service requests or too much data – then it’s possible that AI is something you should be thinking about.
If your business needs to serve more live chat customers than you have the man power for, chatbots and natural language processing might be the way to go. Where you’re looking to improve your creative you might want to think about AI’s applications in advertising. Or if you want to improve your understanding of web traffic, there are tools available.
We can’t stress enough the importance of being flexible in your business mentality, an agile ‘test and learn’ approach is the only way you will ever move forward.
AI isn’t just a buzzword, it’s here to stay.
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