What AI is doing for business
On the eve of AI-DAY, New Zealand’s ‘Premier Artificial Intelligence Conference’, NZBusiness met with AI Forum executive director Ben Reid to learn about the impact AI has on the quest for greater business efficiency. As the recent AI-DAY Conference in Auckland emphasised, artificial intelligence (AI) is already playing a vital role within the business community […]
On the eve of AI-DAY, New Zealand’s ‘Premier Artificial Intelligence Conference’, NZBusiness met with AI Forum executive director Ben Reid to learn about the impact AI has on the quest for greater business efficiency.
As the recent AI-DAY Conference in Auckland emphasised, artificial intelligence (AI) is already playing a vital role within the business community in terms of boosting business efficiency and productivity. However, unless you attended the two-day event you may still be somewhat in the dark about what the technology can deliver; there is still confusion and misinformation out there.
One thing is for certain – the technology is advancing rapidly. The question is: how long can you delay your business getting on board?
As Ben Reid, executive director of New Zealand’s AI Forum, an organisation that brings together the AI community, points out: to understand how the technology will impact on us all “you’ve got to separate the science from the science-fiction”.
First you must understand exactly what AI is and what its capabilities are. Reid sums the technology up under four
The first is ‘machine vision’ – technology that allows computers to see and interpret images much as the human eye does. Facial recognition is the obvious one, but there are more complex applications too, such as counting objects – perhaps carrots in a field, fish in a tank or grapes on a row of vines to predict yield.
“A great company in Christchurch called Orbica is leading the world in many ways with the use of geo-spatial AI technology to analyse satellite images of geographical features,” says Reid. “It might involve counting houses or identifying water bodies such as rivers, for example.”
Facial recognition technology can also be used to satisfy health and safety requirements, Reid adds, such as taking a register of students, or workers on a building site – perhaps eliminating the need for security ID cards. Your face becomes your ID card.
The second application for AI, one that has captured a lot of peoples’ imagination and comes under the heading of ‘conversational AI’, uses techniques called NLP (natural language processing). This is about training computers to understand speech and written text, and has led to the proliferation of customer service chatbots, such as Air New Zealand’s Oscar.
“These chatbots are very good at taking the load off human operators,” says Reid, adding that Spark has a similar goal with its robotic process automation technology that automates many of the steps involved in data handling – eliminating, for example, many ‘cut and paste’ procedures.
“So really for businesses it’s a case of finding those repetitive manual tasks being carried out multiple times and automating them,” he says.
Conversational AI also includes the more advanced physical presence avatars (digital humans) – digital assistants that are emotionally intelligent to an extent and used to conduct face-to-face conversations. Think Air New Zealand’s Sophie, ANZ’s Jamie, ASB’s Josie, Autodesk’s Ava, Sarah for Daimler Financial Services – the list goes on and it’s an ever-increasing one thanks to ground-breaking developers such as Auckland-based companies FaceMe and Soul Machines.
And who can forget the demo video of Google’s AI Assistant calling up local businesses to make appointments, proving that the digital voice, complete with ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’, can be undistinguishable from a human voice.
Then there is the third application for AI in business – and that is ‘robotics’. This technology presents exciting opportunities to automatic manufacturing and agricultural processes – any work that is regarded by humans as dangerous or hazardous, repetitive or just boring. Kiwifruit picking is a great example of the latter. AI-driven robotics can give people the opportunity to perform more interesting and less physically-demanding work somewhere else.
Then underpinning all three use cases for AI outlined above is what is known as ‘machine learning’. This is the technology that’s talked about the most – the one that underpins most AI development today and is essentially teaching computers to learn from the huge amounts of data that’s continually being generated. Or as Reid puts it, “to learn from their environment, rather than being given a strict set of rules, which was how software was developed previously.”
“The theory behind machine learning has been around since the 80s,” explains Reid. “But the [cloud-based] parallel computing power and ability to handle such large amounts of data is only a recent thing.”
As alluded to at the start of this article, AI is already widespread within the business world, and has been for some time. Social media companies use it to optimise their advertising algorithms and moderate content. Xero has AI-supported features within its cloud-based accounting software – all aimed to boost efficiency and reduce repetition.
Reid predicts that in five years’ time AI will be all pervasive across business; the technology will underpin a lot of the software used on a daily basis, and will particularly benefit companies able to leverage ‘Big Data’.
There are opportunities within shared data-sets across entire industries too – he picks out the tourism industry in particular as one potential beneficiary. “The aggregated data from tourist movements and activity is arguably a core New Zealand asset and needs to be managed as such.”
Whole sectors, such as the legal and insurance sectors, will be transformed by AI. Reid uses the example of Zeren – a time-saving AI-driven technology developed by Chapman Tripp that can help streamline legal documentation processes and provide rapid case analysis. There are also big opportunities to automate routine legal transactions online, such as conveyancing. Automating increasing amounts of legal work may also change the billing model away from time-based charging.
There are also numerous opportunities to use AI to help deliver better government services – underpinning this would be more joined up data across government departments. The current review of the Statistics Act (dating from the 1970s) should provide opportunities to improve government stewardship of public data and support joined up services, some enabled by AI.
A business approach to AI
Once people understand how AI works and appreciate its benefits (such as eliminating tedious, repetitive tasks) and the fact that it doesn’t mean robots will take away jobs – then it’s adoption across business will skyrocket.
Reid’s advice to SMEs is to get a thorough understanding of how the technology works to a high level, and what it can do for business. The knowledge hub on the AI Forum’s website (https://aiforum.org.nz/knowledge-hub/) is a good place to start. It has resources to help people skill-up and understand what AI is all about, and to understand the business case. The report Artificial Intelligence: Shaping a Future New Zealand developed by the Forum with research partners IDC and Sapere, identifies key AI opportunities in the public, private and education sectors that New Zealand can invest in now “to actively shape the effects on our collective future”.
“It does point to some big challenges around the ability for New Zealand business leaders to understand how to invest in the technology and what the ROI or business case is,” says Reid.
“Companies can invest in ‘learning by doing’: Find a use case that might work in your business. For example, [if you’re a freight company] can you go back into the history of your truck routing records and optimise them for driver safety or for fuel efficiency?”
Understanding the data assets you have in your business, and the quality and shape of that data, is key to making a start with AI, he explains.
Reid lists some of the stand-out AI developers associated with the AI-DAY conference – companies such as Aware Group, delivering AI solutions for education worldwide, and robotic process automation and OCR (optical character recognition) specialist Xtracta, which delivers a solution for processing vast amounts of documents.
There are companies such as the aforementioned Orbica (geo-spatial AI), as well as FaceMe and Ambit (conversational avatars), and on the AI Forum website there is reference to the forum’s eco-system of companies and organisations that are currently working with artificial intelligence, totalling around 200 in number, and growing, and covering everything across all sectors – from fraud detection to back office automation.
AI is the future
Make no mistake, AI is the present and future efficiency driver for business all around the world, and that’s backed up by the level of global investment in AI technology. A KPMG report put out last year estimates that investment in AI, along with machine learning and robotic process automation technology, is set to reach $232 billion by 2025.
New Zealand businesses are being well-served by AI companies here. Reid says it’s a competitive industry and New Zealand needs to play to its scale and to its niches.
“Arguably every business is a data and software business. The opportunity for New Zealand companies to get to scale is through envisioning where their industry is going to be and growing internationally.
“How do we move up the value chain and, as an example, how do we get out of just producing meat for overseas markets and move up to making meat safe for all the world?”
It’s by mining data, he says, and this is where AI has a key role to play.