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3 Ways Small Businesses Can Quickly Embrace AI Without Big Data or Programmers

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October 15, 2020 6 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When AI was first launched, it was perceived as a technology that could revolutionize by creating a full understanding of a clients’ profile and their needs. It would be a must-have technology for large businesses to boost their balances and a magic tool for to remove barriers between their product or service and the final user — using the right data, of course.

At first, AI appeared to be something that could almost “magically” make perfect predictions about the success or failure of any product just by analyzing different consumers’ profiles and their purchasing behaviors. Startups imagined a world where market traction could be reached simply by running a Python script, rather than optimizing a minimum viable product.

Financial investors have welcomed AI as the beginning of a new financial cycle pumping large amounts of money at any stock labeled AI-based. The “dot-com era” that started in the 90s — and with it, the stock market crash due to excessive speculation — seemed to be replaced by the “AI-era.” Images of humans resting while robots worked on their behalf were the collective image of how this new era would look alike. FOMO (fear of missing out) did the rest, with jumping into this technology without fully understanding it, or in many cases, without even knowing what to do with it. Python developers quickly became among the top hiring needs of many companies.

Related: How Small Businesses Can Leverage AI to Battle Bigger Competitors

Since initiation, however, AI adoption has proven to be very challenging for large companies and presented huge barriers for small businesses; from Amazon Alexa and Facebook’s embarrassing moments to ’s police confessing of shaming the wrong person (who turned out to be a billionaire woman) caused by trust of their facial recognition system. Machines have proven to be less than perfect and behind humans in many cases, and to date, their glitches have indicated that they are simply not quite there yet. Hence the question: If large businesses haven’t yet mastered AI, how can small businesses succeed in this task? And even before that, a more generic question: Can small businesses benefit from AI, or is this something that only large companies — with large datasets, programmers and data analysts — benefit from?

1. Automate your boring tasks

Before you are told that small businesses simply don’t have enough data for jumping into AI and/or that not hiring a data scientist will seriously compromise your budget, clarification is needed. AI is often confused with . AI is a broad umbrella term that includes any application from text analysis to robotics, and Machine Learning is just a subset of AI. While AI is meant to do human tasks faster and more precisely, (hence removing the human-error factor), Machine Learning helps in predicting outcomes and making estimations.

Although Machine Learning has become much more approachable with platforms such as Amazon Pre-trained AI Services or Google Colab — which allows you to build a basic model in a matter of minutes without the need for hiring data scientists, you might not have the skills or more likely the data to run a trustworthy model. You still have the option, however, to use AI to automate your daily routines. Any repetitive task you can think of can be fully automated thanks to AI. For instance, you can record a set of actions on your computer and use AI tools with image detection and on-screen text recognition for activating them automatically. Or you might want to use advanced AI-organized text snippets and typing auto-completion to avoid writing the same things more than once.

Related: Top 3 Reasons Why You Should Invest in Business Software Now

2. Leverage AI in your pitches

Let’s face it, AI is a magic buzzword that gets people’s attention. Labeling your product or service as “using AI” gives some sort of higher credibility and it makes people more likely that will hear what you say. Any business can find a way to implement AI in their processes, whether that means using images or text recognition, matching algorithms, communicating bots, smarter classifications, natural processing language, etc.

My company tested this hypothesis. I own a PR agency and as such, we match brands with journalists, or at least, we pitch stories hoping to find journalists interested in what we tell them. We built an automated scraper to collect all the latest stories published by targeted journalists, saved them to a database, then used AI to classify the data. The goal was to get a precise idea of what each journalist was more likely to be interested in writing about. Frankly, results haven’t been that much better than when we did all this manually. In some cases, results came up worse, but that allowed us to pitch ourselves differently. From a traditional PR agency, we transformed ourselves into an AI-platform. We had just to create a landing page that would summarize our “new” approach. Adding “using AI” did all the rest. The result of this? Our conversions — measured as the number of people that would sign up for our program — basically doubled.

3. Use AI to interact more with your clients

One of the biggest advantages of AI, when applied to customer service, is that it can run many processes simultaneously. Imagine if you had one person running a customer services desk; they would be expected to handle one customer at a time, maybe two. AI gives a chance to serve more people at once. AI is not taking our jobs, but rather helping us to perform our roles more efficiently.

Take the messaging pop-up boxes on websites. Previously they were manually operated, meaning there was someone typing to you. Nowadays AI can take over and do some of the work for you, such as prescreening your clients or providing them with some common answers to their questions. Many times the chatbot can solve the client query or if it cannot find a solution, a human operator can step in.

Related: Use Chatbots for any Purpose with This Custom Platform

The advantage of this is multiple queries can be dealt with at once, whereas before only one query could be dealt with at any given time. Saving businesses from having long queues at customer service counters or long telephone wait times is never good for a company’s image. The AI process frees up time for departments to focus on the customers who need it most.

AI does a smart classification of the information so that in complex customer service environments (such as highly specialized IT departments) they can forward the client query to the right customer service agent. This means that specialists can immediately step into complex issues without having the client being redirected from one department to another.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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