Small business owners: Don't rush into using AI

An artificial intelligence strategist advises small business owners to focus on revenue and growth and not AI in of itself—at least for now—because the ROI is not there.

aibrain.jpg
Image: chombosan, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Artificial intelligence (AI) is here to stay, and the tricky question for small business owners is not whether to jump on board, but when. Daniel Faggella, AI strategist and founder and CEO of Emerj, writes, "Given the inevitability of AI's applications across sectors, it would seem a good idea for small businesses to jump on the AI bandwagon sooner than later to be more competitive... Right?"

Maybe not, it's all about timing according to Faggella. In his Emerj article Is Artificial Intelligence for Small Business? Factors to Consider for Technology Adoption, he encourages caution.

"Contrary to what might be hyped on social media, in nearly all application areas AI is an expensive and complex solution without evidence of direct ROI (return on investment)," writes Faggella. "This is especially relevant for small businesses with limited data, limited resources, and limited data science talent."

Besides the hype, AI is currently not diverse enough to meet the specialized needs of a small business. "There are a very limited number of people with the requisite high-level skills to build an AI application that drives business value," explains Faggella. "It is hard science and takes a lot of time—more time than most enterprises can bear, never mind small businesses."

Additionally, AI technology requires data governance and an infrastructure that is more complex than most small businesses are willing to build.

SEE: SMB security pack: Policies to protect your business (Tech Pro Research)

The bottom line is no one should rush into AI without a clear business objective. "99.9% of small businesses don't actually need AI right now to become profitable, and the technology requires time and skills that make it hard to use," explains Faggella. "As AI becomes more accessible (cheaper, with better defined business uses, and with less requisite computer science knowledge), we should expect to see AI make its way into small business."

That said, AI should not be ruled out completely according to Faggella. A better idea is to look for technologies and applications that use AI. "This is by way of companies who can offer AI-integrated, easy-to-use technology products," mentions Faggella. "Most small businesses could experience artificial intelligence now by using AI products 'off-the-shelf,' so to speak."

SEE: What is AI? Everything you need to know about Artificial Intelligence (ZDNet)

Security via AI

When it comes to cybersecurity, small businesses are at a disadvantage. Most are without an IT staff, which makes it difficult to ensure the company is secure in an ever increasingly complex digital environment. Thankfully, cybersecurity developers are building products that fit a small-business owner's budget and needs—and most contain AI technology.

One example offered by Faggella is Darktrace with its Enterprise Immune System. According to the company website:

"Using proprietary machine learning and AI algorithms, Darktrace Enterprise works by passively analyzing raw network traffic to form an evolving understanding of 'normal' for every user, device, and subnet in an organization."

"The tool requires no special skills to install," mentions Faggella. "It is also self-learning, so there is no need for the business owner to fiddle with it once it is in place."

Securing sensitive customer data

Most small businesses accept online payments via credit or debit cards; that, once again, means complying with a slew of regulations and securing customer financial data. Fortunately for small-business owners, payment-processing companies are aware of their needs.

"Stripe, for example, is a payment processing company that uses adaptive machine learning to detect fraud," adds Faggella. "It collects data from thousands of businesses already running Stripe to improve its ability to detect anomalies and malicious activities for new users."

And like Darktrace, Stripe works right out-of-the-box, is customizable, and fits needs specific to small businesses.

5 key points about AI for small businesses

Caution is still necessary. AI is a means to an end, not the end in itself. "Do not be seduced by the hype," suggests Faggella. "Do not use applications just because they use AI. They will not solve your business problems or ensure your success by their mere presence."

Faggella presents these key takeaways from his article:

  • AI is not magic—it will not solve business problems instantaneously.
  • AI is still a dark art—it often requires a commitment of massive resources and wizard skills to build applications.
  • AI for AI's sake is a bad idea—choose tools for the value they can deliver to your business, and not because they use some form of AI.
  • Data is the key to AI—AI needs data to "learn" and work properly.
  • Data is a valuable resource—small-business owners need to store and record data in a consistent manner for eventual use with AI.

Faggella concludes his commentary by saying:

"There will come a time when AI will become as accessible as your favorite computer software, which is when your properly-stored data will become invaluable. However, that time has not yet come."

Also see