Driving an intelligent future with AI

ARTIFICIAL intelligence (AI) is rapidly evolving from being just a science fiction staple to a tool with real-world impacts. Despite being portrayed negatively in movies - as in the case of Terminator, in which the AI-based Skynet system was out to exterminate humans - AI in reality provides businesses with a competitive edge.

Rapid advancements in technology have put AI within reach of everyman: Apple's Siri, for example, leverages AI to learn about the user's preferences over time to provide more accurate suggestions such as recommending the time to order your coffee so that you can get it as you pass by your regular cafe on the way to the office.

The increased accessibility to AI also spells good news to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In the guises of machine-learning, bots and other intelligent forms of automation, AI provides a spectrum of services such as easing data processing, presenting users with decisions, and educating a "machine" to act on those decisions. In fact, SMEs are in a better position than large corporations when it comes to taking advantage of some of the ways AI will reshape the business as they are not constrained by sunken infrastructure costs.

Just as with other new technology inventions, there are concerns when it comes to adopting AI. Eighty per cent of organisations in Singapore polled by the Committee on the Future Economy last year said they have not adopted AI due to lack of expertise, and the perceived regulatory and legal risks. However, being a laggard is a costly move as Accenture found that AI could help nearly double the Republic's economic growth rate from 3.2 per cent to 5.4 per cent by 2035, which translates to an additional S$295 billion in gross value.

To prevent SMEs from missing out on that opportunity, the Singapore government announced last May that it would invest S$150 million over the next five years in a national programme called AI.SG to boost the country's AI capabilities. One supporting initiative is the 100 Experiments programme, which helps match companies with AI solutions providers that could solve their unique business problems. Besides that, the city-state is ensuring that it has a robust regulatory framework that AI. For instance, it is providing sandboxes to allow firms to test their AI solutions in real but contained environments.

The following are five significant ways that AI can help Singapore SMEs:

  • Intelligent and predictive analysis. While business intelligence usually provides insights into historical data, AI analyses large amounts of data to suggest decisions, or in the case of machine learning, act on the data in real time. This means that AI allows organisations to immediately identify anomalies and trends that affect the business.

For example, a projected delay in a purchase order for a low-value raw material might affect the on-time delivery of high-value orders in the future and cause customer satisfaction issues, which in turn could lead to payment delays, lower repeat orders and impact on revenue months later. AI could help prevent this: by being aware of the issue immediately, the buyer could have found a replacement rather than accepting a delay in delivery.

  • Intelligent interaction. Dashboards can help SMEs make better and faster business decisions by presenting data on operational and business performance in visual formats such at pie charts and bar graphs. Rather than using out-of-the-box dashboards, AI can dynamically construct those based on activities and the behaviour of thousands of similar roles - providing users with more relevant business insight. We are also now seeing the emergence of intelligent voice-activated solutions, which take unstructured instructions to determine what the user wants before ensuring the right information is delivered back.
  • Intelligent automation. With AI, business processes can be changed or automated without writing code. The smart systems will learn, suggest and automate processes based on learning business patterns and behaviour. For example, the machine can automatically place a hold on customers' requests based on payment and ordering behaviour.

Even though AI is a powerful enabling technology, its value can only be realised if it has the right foundation. SMEs with unified applications in the cloud are better positioned to reap the benefits of AI as opposed to those with data sets sprawled across different data marts and hidden in spreadsheets.

SMEs that leverage intelligent technologies to harness data will, therefore, be well placed to outmanoeuvre their competition, reduce waste, and grow revenue and profits.

The writer is general manager, Asia, HK & TW at Oracle NetSuite.