By Anton van Heerden, managing director and executive vice-president, Africa & Middle East at Sage
This week (25 May) at BotCon in Cape Town, South African developers and enterprises will showcase some of the ways they’re putting the newest artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to work. Some of the latest developments are a little scary, especially for those who have grown up with rogue AIs and robots in science-fiction or have read the headlines about how we’ll lose millions of jobs worldwide to automation by 2020.
What does this mean for the average business builder or entrepreneur in South Africa? My view is that they should see bots and advanced AI as an opportunity to be more efficient, and make room for more meaningful work for their human employees. Of course, we’ll all need to upskill and reskill ourselves—as millions of people have needed to do in other technology revolutions throughout history— but the good thing is that AI and robotics can help us become more productive and do more ‘human’ work and less of the mundane stuff.
Humans + AI = a great team for small business
AI and bots could change the way small businesses work as much as mobile phones and the Internet have. But rather than replacing human employees, it will help people working for and managing Small & Medium Businesses to achieve more with their time. Used correctly, humans and AI can achieve more together than either can on its own.
Even though many bots today offer fairly basic functionality and features, the pace of innovation in AI and machine learning is accelerating. Advances in areas such as natural language processing (NLP) and speech recognition enable us to interact with machines in ways that feel more natural to us. Just think, for example, of asking Siri a question using your voice compared to fiddling with the onscreen keyboard of your iPhone.
More time to innovate and make happy customers
Letting a ‘bot’ file your expense claims, seek quotes for a caterer for your product launch or respond to basic online customer chat requests could save human capacity for innovation and customer service. Sage, for example recently announced that the first accounting chat bot Pegg now has over 20,000 users in 110 countries.
This is important for small businesses since our research consistently shows that finding time for innovation and creativity is a huge bugbear for time-strapped business builders around the world. It’s little wonder, then, that our recent research also illustrates that South African entrepreneurs are enthusiastic about AI rather than fearful (Forum for Business Builders – South Africa data).
South African entrepreneurs love technology and have traditionally been eager to embrace tools that help them get more things done every day. The research also shows that 43% of respondents are ready for AI and bots to help them organise their professional life for them. Nearly half (47%) agreed that they would feel comfortable with AI and Bots organising their personal life for them.
Around 61% of respondents chose AI as the most important technology trend for 2017, with only 18% choosing the blockchain. And some 71% said that they would welcome an admin-free world - the sort of world that AI, blockchain and the next wave of disruptive digital technologies will help us to create.
In the final analysis, technology is there to free us from drudge tasks, so that we can focus on the exciting, creative work that humans still do best.