Business Technology

Who’s ready for a robot colleague? Getting to grips with automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning

5 min read

07 August 2018

Former special projects journalist

At the Festival of Ideas earlier this year, a discussion around AI prompted several points of interest – what exactly do we mean by AI, what can we use it for…and are the robots taking over?

The Growing Business Awards (GBA), an annual event to celebrate businesses from across the UK, is fast approaching. In preparation, Real Business recently held the Festival of Ideas, at the Brewery, London, for the GBA alumni.

The day itself included a couple of panels, as well as breakout sessions where attendees had the chance to network and brainstorm ideas about some of the hot topics in the world of SMEs at the moment.

The roundtables included discussions on recruitment, marketing and expanding overseas.

The fourth and last roundtable of the day focused on how technology can be used to drive growth – and needless to say this is a huge topic area.

Here are some of the points that came out of the discussions:

Jargon busting

What is the difference between AI and machine learning? How do we talk about AI? Is AI as big a deal as everyone says?

A lot of questions come down to defining certain technologies. Just a few years ago, a lot of people might have said they don’t use the cloud, but might have relied on gmail or outlook etc to read their emails.

The same is true of AI, it actually has already crept into our everyday. For example, a lot of people probably rely on digital assistants like Siri, or Alexa.

Partly, this is because artificial intelligence is described as the ability for a machine or computer to “think”, but this vague description is also somewhat of a moving target. As technology advances, things we would once have considered to require AI just become routine.

Then there is machine learning. Whereas AI is a machine acting in a way we would deem to be “smart” (for example, predictive text on a smart phone), machine learning does what it says on the tin – it’s the idea that we can give machines access to data, and over time they will teach themselves new things (for example, a smartphone guessing that when you type a certain letter you are about to type your partner’s name because you use it all the time).

Speaking to your audience

Another point to come out of the discussion was that people of a certina age might have different expectations of customer service. For example, whereas some people may prefer to speak to someone when booking a holiday just to hear a confirmation from another human voice, some people may choose to do everything online.

According to a survey by OnBuy.com, 61% of millennials find it easier to chat to stores via text, messenger apps or online chat than to physically go in to a store. In addition, more than half of millennials would prefer to find information online than speak to a shop assistant.

The survey reported that 73% of respondents believe that retailers will need to keep up with tech to improve the customer experience.

The creep factor

One table discussed how creepy new technology can get – and this is a common sci-fi trope. Are the robots going to take over? What is the impact of AI on people’s jobs?

A poll of business leaders from the RSA and YouGov found that 14% are currently investing in AI and robotics, or plan to in the near future. This might seem low given how often we hear AI being spoken about in business circles, but perhaps surprisingly, 39% said they believe the technology is too costly or remains unproven.

However, given the UK’s productivity gap, automating certain business processes could offer a way to help increase output.

In fact, the report argues that “AI and robotics could be a blessing to workers rather than a curse” as it could “phase out mundane work, boost flagging living standards, and open up the space for more purposeful and human-centric jobs to prevail”.

Only time will tell.