Every year seems to have its business trends. Last year it was digital transformation. Before that, big data. This year, it's artificial intelligence (AI).

For small businesses, it can be hard to distinguish hype from reality.

It can also be difficult to embrace AI with the same fervor as large companies because AI talent is scarce and expensive.

In this case, small and medium-size businesses (SMBs) are once again trying to keep up with a potentially game-changing technology that might be out of their price range. 

As a tech company founder who looks around corners, I jumped on AI early and hired an AI expert several years ago before the hype. We had already built AI into our technology before the popular references to AI took hold. 

While some of the talk about AI may posit far-fetched notions, there is no doubt that AI and machine learning are powerful technologies that should be thoughtfully considered in any technology solution. 

AI is a technology that SMBs can't afford to ignore and here's what you need to know:

1.Yes, AI really will change the way business is done. 

If you think AI is just hype, think for a second about the technologies you use in your everyday life. 

If your household is like 10 million others in the U.S., then you have an Amazon device in your home featuring the Alexa voice-controlled assistant. Even if you don't, your smartphone has either Siri, Google's voice-controlled assistant or Microsoft's Cortana. Even Facebook's News Feed is powered by AI. 

The application of AI can potentially disrupt every business, ranging from retail to construction to healthcare. 

2. Free open-source AI tools are available. 

If your SMB is tech savvy, then you could take advantage of free, open-source tools like Google's TensorFlow, an open-source machine learning library, and Microsoft's Azure Machine Learning Experimentation service.

You can also get started for free with IBM Watson's AI tools. Such tools make it easier to create your own software for various AI implementations ranging from facial recognition to predictive analytics.

For the non-tech savvy, there are tools like Chattypeople that let you build a Facebook Messenger chatbot without using coding.

3. Some off-the-shelf tools also let SMBs take advantage of AI. 

There are a slew of AI-based personal assistants on the market that purport to make it easier for you to schedule meetings.

For instance, if you get an email about a potential meeting, x.ai's Amy will handle the back-and-forth of setting it up and putting it on your calendar.

Other affordable AI-based solutions include Textio, which uses AI to help write better job listings; Narrative Science's Quill, which turns raw text into readable documents; and InteractiveTel, which analyzes incoming sales calls to look for opportunities and trends. 

4. AI can potentially wipe out entire job titles. 

Not every job can be replaced by a machine, but some 47 percent of U.S. jobs can according to an Oxford study.

For instance, autonomous vehicles could make some 1.7 million U.S. truck driver jobs obsolete.

But it's not just physical work that can be replaced. Bots (along with blockchain -- a virtual, unalterable ledger) can take over functions of real estate agents, insurance agents and accounting the way websites like Orbitz and Expedia made travel agents largely redundant.

The upshot is that even if you're not well versed in AI, you need to understand how it might impact your business.

Though we may look back on some of the claims about AI and conclude that it didn't live up to the hype, as blogger Tim Urban has argued, the increased pace of change in technology plus the open-ended possibilities of AI make the amount of change wrought by AI truly profound. As Urban notes, a person from today would be as shocked at what they'd see if they were plopped into 2030 as a person from 1750 would be if they were transported to 2017. 

AI isn't just another overhyped technology. It's sort of like the Internet all over again.

The beauty of AI is that it can facilitate efficiency, scalability, an enhanced customer interaction, and a richer user experience overall with a site, app, device or piece of technology.  If you want to create it, there is likely a tool or platform out there to help you get started.

If you haven't yet considered how it will affect your business, then it's time to start thinking about AI.  

Published on: Dec 14, 2017