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The AI Boom: Practical Guide to Generative AI for Small Businesses
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The AI Boom: Practical Guide to Generative AI for Small Businesses

Last Updated on November 5, 2023 by Editorial Team

Author(s): Natalia Koupanou

Originally published on Towards AI.

In recent years, the world has witnessed a remarkable surge in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). It’s not just another tech trend; it’s a technological revolution that is reshaping industries, economies, and societies. From large corporations to small businesses, AI is making a tangible impact across the board.

In this blog post, we delve into the heart of this transformative AI advancement, focusing on Generative AI. We’ll explore the fundamentals, its historical context, and the recent surge in its capabilities. Additionally, we’ll explain how small businesses can use Generative AI effectively, clearing up any misunderstandings and showing you how to get your hands on these advanced tools. By the end, we are hoping you’ll be in a better position to navigate the AI landscape and position your small business for success in this era of change.

Getting the basics right

To understand the AI boom, we need to start by defining some key terms:

Artificial Intelligence (AI): AI is a field of computer science that enables machines to imitate human intelligence. It encompasses various capabilities, including learning, decision-making, understanding natural language, and even playing games, all aimed at replicating human-like intelligence.

Machine Learning (ML): A subset of AI, ML enables machines to learn from examples without explicit programming. Think of it as showing a computer a lot of pictures of cats and dogs until it can distinguish between them on its own.

Deep Learning: A subfield of ML, deep learning relies on artificial neural networks to understand complex data and create hierarchies of information. It’s particularly effective in tasks like image and speech recognition.

Generative AI (Gen AI): Gen AI is a subset of deep learning focused on creating new content, such as text, images, audio, and video. It learns from existing data and uses that knowledge to generate unique and novel outputs.

Generative AI is a subset of Deep Learning

History and development of AI

Before we explore the current AI boom, let’s take a brief historical detour. The term “Artificial Intelligence” was coined in the mid-20th century by John McCarthy, often regarded as the father of AI. He described AI as “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines”. However, AI research experienced periods of rapid progress as well as “AI winters” when expectations exceeded technological capabilities.

In the 21st century, we’ve witnessed the rapid growth of AI, primarily due to advancements in machine learning, access to vast datasets, and powerful computing resources. This resurgence has led to AI being applied across various domains, from voice assistants such as Siri, and Alexa and recommendation systems found in websites such as Netflix, and Amazon to self-driving cars such as Tesla autopilot and language translation such as Google Translate.

Explosive Growth of Generative AI

One of the most exciting aspects of the current AI boom is the explosive growth of Generative AI. In just the past few months, we’ve seen remarkable innovations, including new iterations of models like GPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) and groundbreaking projects like Midjourney, DALL·E 2, LLMA, AutoGPT pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

Last November, ChatGPT from OpenAI wowed the world with its ability to generate content, from emails to legal documents. It even passed the Bar Exam, hinting at AI’s potential in the legal domain. Walmart is exploring AI for contract negotiations, while Google’s Med-PaLM 2 excels in medical diagnostics. In the coding world, Code Llama, an advanced Language Model System (LLM), is set to accelerate coding tasks and democratize access for all developers, seasoned or novices, reshaping the coding landscape.

What sets Generative AI apart is its ability to create content. By providing a simple prompt, you can generate text, images, videos, and more. Prompt engineering, the art of crafting prompts, plays a crucial role in controlling the output of these models (more on this in a future article).

AI-generated art picturing a futuristic office of a small business owner

Practical Impact on Small Businesses

In recent years, we’ve seen slower productivity growth, but McKinsey’s estimates that automation of work tasks enabled by technology could lead to an annual global productivity increase of 0.2% to 3.3% between 2023 and 2040. Here are some real-world examples of how small businesses can leverage AI:

  1. Content Creation: AI can assist in generating captivating content for websites, blogs, social media, etc. It helps produce relevant content quickly, freeing up time for other tasks.
  2. Visual Design: AI can generate graphics, logos, and social media posts that align seamlessly with a brand’s identity, saving time and ensuring consistency.
  3. Music and Audio Creation: AI can compose original jingles, soundtracks, and background music for videos, adding a unique sonic layer to content.
  4. Personalized Marketing Campaigns: Based on specific customer information, you can leverage Gen AI to generate personalized marketing materials (e.g., emails, product recommendations, ads), enhancing customer engagement and relevance.
  5. Product and Prototype Design: AI can contribute innovative ideas and prototypes during brainstorming sessions in creative fields, such as fashion and product design.
  6. Language Translation and Localisation: AI provides accurate translation and localization services, expanding into new markets effectively.
  7. Text Summarisation and Content Curation: AI simplifies the process of summarising articles and curating relevant content for newsletters or industry updates.
  8. Storytelling and Narrative Generation: AI can craft compelling narratives for presentations, sales pitches and other speeches, helping businesses connect with their audience.
  9. Customer Support: AI can help you curate frequently asked questions and reply to customer queries. Customized AI-powered chatbots can also provide 24/7 customer support, enhancing customer satisfaction and reducing the workload on support teams.
  10. Human Resources: AI can streamline HR processes, from writing up job adverts to preparing employee onboarding material, making the hiring process more efficient and reducing administrative burdens.
Examples of Generative AI use cases for small businesses

Myths About AI

Before diving into AI, it’s essential to dispel some misconceptions:

  1. AI Is Only for Big Businesses: AI tools are accessible to businesses of all sizes, including small enterprises. Hopefully, you are convinced about this one after reading this blog post.
  2. AI Is Always Perfect: AI can make errors, and human oversight is often required to ensure quality. These errors are called hallucinations. An AI hallucination is “where a large language model (LLM) like OpenAI’s GPT4 makes up false information or facts that aren’t based on real data or events”.
  3. AI Is Too Expensive: Cost-effective AI tools and solutions are available with a significant return on investment. The cost also depends on the application, scale and customization needed for your company to use AI. Some low-cost tools are mentioned later in this blog post.
  4. AI Knows Everything About Your Business: AI’s knowledge is based on data and requires proper training and customization to understand specific business nuances. If you want your AI model to provide precise information about your private data, then you should apply techniques like fine-tuning and Retrieval Augmented Generation (RAG) systems. RAG combines a knowledge retrieval system (like a librarian with access to your data) with a language model (like a GPT) to provide precise information when needed. Fine-tuning involves training an existing AI model (like a GPT) on specific data to adapt it to a particular domain or to change its response style, but it requires significant computational resources and updates every time you have new data.

Accessing Generative AI for Small Businesses

Small business owners can access Generative AI through various means:

  1. Educate Yourself: Gain a basic understanding of AI concepts and terminology to make informed decisions. Platforms like AWS, Google Cloud and LinkedIn offer some non-technical courses tailored to business users. Such as “What is Generative AI”, “Generative AI for Executives” and “Introduction to Generative AI Learning Path”.
  2. Consult Experts: Partner with AI consultants who can guide you on tool selection, implementation, and strategy.
  3. Choose User-Friendly Tools: Opt for pre-built Generative AI tools designed for non-tech-savvy users. You can find some in the next section.
  4. Partner with AI Vendors: Collaborate with AI vendors to develop custom solutions tailored to your business.
  5. Hire AI Experts: Employ AI experts to create personalized AI solutions for your specific needs.

Depending on the size, budget and needs of your company, you can choose which of these options are most suitable for you.

Affordable or Free AI Tools

While I can’t vouch for their quality, several AI tools are available for small businesses:

  • Website Creation: Tools like 10Web and Wix ADI offer user-friendly website building with AI assistance.
  • Image Generation: OpenAI’s DALL·E 2, Midjourney and Stable Diffusion are excellent for generating images based on prompts.
  • Content Creation: Tools like chatGPT, Grammarly, Plus AI, and Jasper.ai assist in writing and editing content.
  • Sales and Marketing: Tools like Seamless.ai, Ocoya and Salesforce (Einstein) focus on lead generation and social media automation.
  • Financial Management: Booke AI, Truewind.ai and other tools use AI for accounting and insights.
  • Customer Interactions: Companies such as Boundless AI and Caffeinated CX offer personalised customer interactions through AI-powered chatbots. If you have the internal expertise, it’s also possible to fine-tune an LLM or connect your private data to an LLM using platforms such as Google Vertex AI, Pinecone and Single Store.

Preparing for the Future

The AI boom is here to stay, and its influence on small businesses will only grow. To prepare for the future:

  1. Stay Informed: Keep up with AI developments, trends, and applications in your industry.
  2. Experiment and Learn: Start small, experiment with AI tools, and learn from the experience.
  3. Collaborate: Consider partnerships with AI experts and vendors to tailor solutions for your business.
  4. Up-skill Your Workforce: Invest in training and up-skilling to make the most of AI’s potential.
  5. Embrace Change: Be open to change and adapt your business strategies as AI continues to evolve.

In conclusion, Generative AI is transforming the ways of executing work and, therefore, productivity not just for big organizations but also for small and medium businesses. While challenges and misconceptions exist, AI offers immense potential for innovation, efficiency, and growth. Small business owners who embrace AI with a clear strategy and a commitment to adapt will be better positioned to thrive in this AI-powered era.

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