Where would your business be today if you went paperless 10 years ago? What would've happened if you invested in social media marketing at the dawning of the Facebook era? Chances are, your business would be far ahead of the curve right now.

Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. And it's difficult to predict which tech trend will take off and which will become just another passing fad. But when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), you don't need a crystal ball to see that it will revolutionize the business world. Because AI isn't some far-off projection, it's already here--and you can start using it to transform your business today.

Fearing the future.

It should come as no surprise that there's a lot of fear surrounding AI. We've all seen the parables about robot wars, the rise of the machines, and nefarious sentient computers. But catastrophic sci-fi predictions aside, there's a more practical, business-world concern when it comes to AI.

According to a Pew Research study, more than 70 percent of the U.S. admitted to fearing that robots and automation will take over their jobs. This fear is likely fueled by the admissions of many leaders in tech who are supporting the idea that universal basic income could be a solution to future unemployment caused by AI.

But rather than fearing AI, we should fear falling behind the AI trend--and allowing our businesses to stagnate as a result.

As it turns out, we're currently encountering an AI skills deficit. According to an Ernst & Young poll, 56 percent of senior AI professionals argued the lack of talent and qualified workers is the greatest barrier when it comes to leveraging this technology for business use. We're a long ways off from what we've seen in the sci-fi movies, but the technology is here and it can be used to help your business. Early adoption may be essential.

If you're not sure where to begin investing in the AI movement, here are a few areas to consider:

Chatbots and virtual assistants.

Bank of America has seen great success with their new chatbot Erica. From helping users deposit checks to sending money to their friends, this chatbot fields user questions and can walk them through common banking transactions.

Three months after launching, Erica gained over 1 million users. With numbers that good, it seems as if Bank of America's customer base was waiting for this type of technology to finally arrive. Erica is making their lives easier by not having to pick up the phone, wait on hold, and talk to a service rep--of course, the adoption numbers have been astronomical.

And while this is an example of what a major corporation is doing with chatbots--and doing well--even small-business owners and soloprenuers can leverage AI chatbots to streamline business. There are several chatbot companies out there that cater to small businesses--request a demo and see which company might best suit your business needs.

Customer relationship management (CRM) systems.

Salesforce introduced their AI tool, Einstein, back in 2016. The company also partnered with IBM's Watson to integrate its tools and data into their system. Other popular CRM companies like Oracle, Adobe, and SAP have also been leveraging AI capabilities.

AI in CRM can be used to help companies manage customer data in real time. When fielding customer calls, AI can be used to gather all of a customer's information in the blink of an eye and have it ready for the service representative before they start the call. The end result is a customer who feels as if the company--no matter how big they may be--really knows them and values the relationship.

Connected systems.

Partnering AI with the internet of things (IoT) and connected devices has been a winning formula for many companies. General Electric, for example, uses it's Predix operating system to collect and analyze data from industrial machines and even predict possible machine failures.

On a smaller scale, AI can be used to regulate office temperatures (to increase cost-efficiency) and warehouse stock. It can also be used to resolve employee tech problems or gauge internal compliance. The possibilities for improving and streamlining operations with AI are only continuing to evolve every day.

Final word.

It's time to dispel the fears around AI and start leveraging this technology to streamline business operations and surprise and delight our customers. The only thing we should fear about AI is not jumping on the trend now. It's the early adopters who will be miles ahead of their competition as this sophisticated technology continues to go mainstream.

Published on: Sep 18, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.