I’ve often joked that I don’t often see intelligence in some businesses, let alone artificial intelligence (AI)!  How many times have you been emailed something without even the most basic sanity checks made?  Data that is clearly incorrect and you’re the last person in a long chain of people it’s passed through, but nobody has called out an obvious mistake?  From person to person the data goes, all each individual does is hit the forward button, maybe some half-asleep data input into another system and then it goes off again.  Time, cost and errors.

What is artificial intelligence?

I’m going to stop you there.  You’ve just imagined a robot, maybe a Terminator, Lt Commander Data, or C3PO.  It’s just not, artificial intelligence is absolutely nowhere near the point where it can handle that impersonation of a person.  Some people like to say machine-based learning and a few other times that all get thrown into this artificial intelligence mix.   Those are quite closer to the truth.

The algorithms that are in machine-based learning are getting very good at mimicking some form of intelligence, they can also complete many onerous tasks with more accuracy than people.  In healthcare, algorithms are being used to spot abnormalities in cancer screening more accurately than humans can.  After all, the machine does not get tired or needs to rush home due to other priorities.

You still have no idea what I’m talking about?  You’re interacting with machine-based learning algorithms all the time.  Every time you Google something and it knows what you’re about to type.  Suggested content on Netflix or Amazon.  Bill Gates actually wrote about these intelligent agents that learn your preferences and make choices for you in the late ’90s in his book, The Road Ahead.  Of course, he forgot to mention the internet in the book and brought out a version 1.1 with the bug fixes a couple of years later!  Some people can patch it by printing out the new pages and glueing them in.  (I’ll stop with the bad IT jokes!)

The point is, that reality is now – all your social network feeds are showing you, what these algorithms think your preferences are.  They’re doing it to keep your eyes on the screen, engaging with the platforms, learning more about you and serving up more adverts that you’re more likely to click on.

What does artificial intelligence mean for my business?

So you’re probably not interested in the big advertising networks and what’s going on in social media.  However, there will be tools that use artificial intelligence that your business can and should use.  The inspiration for this blog really came from the tools we use internally.  I personally find accounts payable a pain to deal with and data input the worst.  Back in my youth that is becoming hazier by the day, I did a lot of work on Shared Services.

These were where big multinational corporations extracted accounts, IT, HR and other common functions and put them into a separate entity and ‘sold’ them back to the different divisions.  Thre was a drive to reduce cost and find synergies.  Of course, this started off the ‘offshoring’ revolution and, we all love that, don’t we!  At the same time, there was a different, more difficult and technical approach – that was to take invoices, scan them and automatically process them.

These scanning systems were expensive, but if you were doing hundreds of thousands of invoices per year, it made a lot of sense to invest.

If you think about it – invoices are very interesting, there are so many different layouts – some companies word process, some companies use their accounts software, specific invoice production software.  There’s virtually a limitless combination.  Systems had to get good at recognising these, some used templates.  Every time a new supplier came into the mix, then a new template had to be set up.  But the interesting ones to me used machine-based learning.  This was around 20 years ago, so the technology is nothing new.

These days, I use a cloud-based service that takes my payables invoices, extracts the text and using artificial intelligence recognises the invoice, the line items and pushes it into my accounts software ready for a final human sanity check before committing.  20 years ago, I’d have had to pay six figures for a system to do that, these days, it’s a pay by volume service that costs pennies per invoice.

Can it do anything else?

Of course, it can.  The main thing that I wanted you to get out of this article that the technology is readily available and it’s cheap.  In many cases – things like Microsoft 365 provide you with some of the tools you need to get started and you’re already paying for it!  Processes can be automated, documents routed without going to a person to decide on where it should go.

The technologies involved are nothing new, but it has taken the emergence of the ‘cloud’ these hosted services we all pay a couple of quid a month for to get us to the point where the technology is good.  My favourite example of what the cloud has done for artificial intelligence is how great speech recognition is on Alexa or Google.  Previously, you had to sit for hours training your speech recognition software to understand you.  These days you just don’t.  The cloud-based speech recognition systems are sampling everyone, getting better data sets and can even understand a (sometimes) broad West Cumbrian like myself, marra!

As we move towards a covid19 pandemic recovery (hopefully), most businesses will be looking to things like artificial intelligence to improve efficiencies and fuel growth.  We’ve proven what the IT industry has said all along about remote working and collaborative tools – they just work.  The companies that continue to listen to their IT advisors, consultants and departments – will benefit vastly from the next wave of artificial intelligence tools that’s ready to start using.

There’s a big tool bag to get started with improving your business processes. We are always there for a chat and love talking about how businesses can improve what they do.  As they say, talk is cheap – in our case an initial chat is free and we can see what we can do for you!  Feel free to contact us. 

PS – I wrote this with another AI tool – Grammarly, which is currently slapping my wrists.  Although I got an A in English Language back at school, I think my teacher would now be upset.