In this article you’ll find out:

  • What are SMBs’ perceptions of smart machine technology
  • Why smart machines will become critical to business success
  • Case studies on smart machines that are being put to work in enterprises in a variety of sectors
  • Examples of affordable, software-based solutions that small businesses can adopt to take their first baby steps towards process automation (‘hacks’, if you like).

It had to happen, didn’t it? Smart machines, robots, and artificially intelligent virtual assistants are entering the workforce.

It’s 2015 and as promised by countless sci-fi novels and movies, these smart machines are starting to working alongside humans across all industries. In fact, research firm Gartner predicts that within three years 45 percent of the fastest-growing firms will have fewer employees than smart machines.

“Smart machine capabilities are coming faster than you may think and they are going to impact every industry, so this is not an optional activity,” says Jackie Fenn, Vice President and Gartner Fellow in executive leadership and innovation at Gartner.

But what exactly do we mean by “smart machines”? Essentially, smart machines are any kind of technology that is able to make decisions and solve problems without human intervention, such as robots, self-driving cars, and cognitive, self-learning computing systems.

These ‘digital disruptors’ will have both positive and negative effects on aspects of society, but for businesses the competitive advantages that smart machines are capable of providing should bring higher profit margins and more efficient processes.

Small businesses are switching on to smart machines

Make no mistake, smart machines will not only disrupt businesses at the enterprise level, they will sweep through businesses of all sizes: from Walmart to the mom and pop shop. As Wired editor Kevin Kelly noted in his article on the future of artificial intelligence: “the business plans of the 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI”.

Small businesses are already beginning to open their eyes to the power of smart machines. According to a recent GetData survey by GetApp, 55 percent of SMB owners say they are at least thinking about employing smart machines to automate operations. In fact, 13 percent are already using smart machine technology in their business.

Below are five cool examples of smart machines being used by companies to work more efficiently and generate more profit. These were highlighted by Jackie Fenn in her presentation “CIO Survival Guide – Your Role in a World of Smart Machines,” which she delivered at the Gartner Symposium in Barcelona in November 2015.

Most of these case studies are from large corporations, but I’ve included a bunch of cost effective software ‘hacks’ for small businesses that don’t currently have the budget to invest in these type of advanced IoT devices or artifical intelligence solutions.

The robot writer

The company

Forbes.com

The industry Publishing

The tech Narrative Science’s Quill: automated blog post creation

What does it do?

Looking to expand its market coverage in a cost-effective way, business news web site Forbes.com enlisted the help of Quill, an advanced natural language generation platform designed to create prefectly crafted articles for target audiences. The solution is used by Forbes to generate fluent and insightful content, with the aim of being indistinguishable from stories a human would produce According to Lewis D’Vorkin, chief product officer at Forbes.com, it worked a treat. “We recognized quickly that we could immediately start publishing stories on Forbes.com,” said D’Vorkin. “The content was excellent, and there have been no problems with editorial quality, facts, or style”. Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 3.29.58 PM  The hack While you may not be able to justify the cost of an all-out writing bot for your company blog, there are plenty of content marketing tools that can take some of the pain out of content creation. For example, apps such as Curata and Scoop.it allow you to quickly ‘curate’ content from the web, delivering personalized articles based on algorithms which you can automatically republish on your blog (FYI – the post you’re reading now was written by a human – honestly!)

The factory droid with feelings

The Company

The Rodon Group

The industry

Manufacturing

The tech

Rethink Robotics’ Baxter

What does it do?

When looking for an efficient way to automate one of its packing lines, injection moulding company The Rodon Group employed the services of the human-like robot, Baxter. The droid is designed to work alongside employees without the need for safety caging.

One of Baxter’s most interesting features is the fact it can demonstrate human emotion through the face on its screen. Baxter has a square screen for a face with simple eyes and eyebrows and when it stops working it stops and it frowns. The idea is that when it breaks down the human working alongside it looks at the glum robot’s face and feels the need to stop and help it.

“The fact that Bazter could work alongside human beings in a safe manner was huge,” said Tony Hofmann, Facility Manager at Rodon. “We work 24/7 here. To be able, midstream in a job, to stop, move him and reprogram him to do something else, again and again…I think that’s huge.”

The hack

With the price of the Baxter Robot starting at $25,000, he may not be a viable option for smaller manufacturing firms. However, there’s plenty of cloud-based software for manufacturing and engineering companies that can help streamline workflows and cut costs.

Propago, for example, is a subscription-based production management application designed to coordinate all aspects of operations, such as manufacturing, procurement, order and inventory management, kitting, pick and pack, and distribution.

The egoless virtual assistant

The Company

Hyatt Hotels

The industry

Travel & hospitality/communications

The tech

Interactions Corporation

What does it do?

Virtual assistants (VAs) are on the rise, with Gartner predicting that by 2020 VAs will carry out 40 percent of mobile transactions. Interactions Corporation has developed a technology for call centers that merges automated speech recognition and text-to-speech rendering with a human touch, so that interactions feel as natural as talking to a customer service rep.

The system is smart enough to know when the VA has reached a point where it is unable to provide a satisfactory response for the customer, and it will automatically transfer the customer to a live agent when this happens.

Hyatt Hotels has been using the Interactions solution with the aim of providing a better customer experience and improving sales efficiency. Tactics the company employs include automating portions of the reservation process by allowing callers to describe the specifics of their trip in “natural language” and automating the frequent, yet routine, calls the company receives to confirm or cancel a reservation.

The hack

If your small business doesn’t have the budget to implement such a virtual assistant solution, don’t have a cow, because there are plenty of smart ways you can use affordable, subscription-based customer service software to your advantage. Many online chat tools like LiveChat or LiveAgent allow you to automate actions and speed up response times with features such as canned/predefined messages, or the ability to transfer chats to colleagues.

The tech that sees customers’ desires in their eyes

The company

Mars Inc.

The industry

Food

The tech

Affdex facial coding

What does it do?

This one’s a little scary if you’re a consumer, but very interesting if you’re part of a marketing team. Affdex is a piece of software that can read human responses to adverts, product concepts and other media content. Using facial analysis it can measure emotional responses and analyses this data to deliver insights.

Mars, of Mars Bars fame, is one company that’s been using the Affdex solution. The company wanted to test if its advertising evoked the intended emotional response in its customers, and consequently, if this could help them predict sales for its various product lines. It turns out that the facial coding tech was better able to predict short-term sales rather than relying just on self-report methods. Mars discovered too that chocolate ads provoked the highest emotional engagement, while ads for its food products sparked the lowest emotional response.

 

LaptopScreenPurchaseIntent

The hack

Your small business almost certainly doesn’t need to go for a piece of facial recognition tech like Affdex, and there are plenty of cloud-based applications that can help you get an insight into how customers are responding to your marketing campaigns.

Using the right business intelligence software can give you valuable insights about reactions to your marketing campaigns. For example, Salesforce’s Wave Analytics can help you gauge the success of marketing campaigns and customer service initiatives, giving you insights into the age, gender, and location of your customers, and displaying detailed information about the behaviour of your most successful lead sources through attractive dashboards.

Hair-raising digital ad blows commuters way

The company

Akestam Holst

The industry Advertizing

The tech Interactive digital billboard

What does it do? To promote its haircare products in a mind-blowing way, Swedish company Apotek enlisted the help of ad agency Akestam Holst and production company Stopp to create an interactive digital billboard in the Stockholm subway. The billboard was rigged with sensors that detected when a train was coming and as the wind blew the passengers standing on the platform, it also blew the hair of the woman in the ad poster, with her locks sweeping around in front of her face. Originally due to be a one-day campaign screen maker Clear Channel was so impressed that they kept it live for five more days in order to showcase the opportunities that their Play screens can offer.

The hack

OK, so your small business might not be able to invest in these kind of lavish digital advertizing campaigns. But it is possible to rig up an effective, eye-catching digital signage system on a budget. An entry-level digital signage system, such as Mvix Xihibit Signage, consists of a playback device (digital signage media player), a digital screen (typically LCD, LED, or plasma display), and a content management software (CMS). The digital signage media players are connected to large displays via HDMI cables, and to the internet via Wi-Fi or Ethernet cables. Once the player is online, it communicates with the CMS to recieve content and updates for playback. Get creative enough with your content and you could too could be blowing consumers away.

Is your business considering using smart machines to get a competitive advantages? Maybe you’re already transforming your work with this new tech. We’d love to hear your tales of smart machines and cool examples of their use in business.

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