Artificial intelligence (AI) is gradually seeping into all aspects of everyday life. Not to mention being the byword in tech sector. At the base of AI are machine learning and deep learning. Whereas the human mind still provides the foundation for machine learning, deep learning involves self-learning computers taking over the work previously done by humans and machines. Smart software and flexible algorithms are on their way to relieve us of some our work, and we should not be afraid of that, in and of itself. For example, routine and predictable questions for call center staff can easily be handled by a computer. More complex issues do still require humans, though not as many as before. Besides, the programs are gaining intelligence as we speak. AI is bound to help retailers improve, not just in customer service and customer engagement, but also in key performance indicators such as marketing, delivery times, fulfillment and analytic costs, to name a few.

Staples, the US office supplies business, has started testing AI by having customers place their order using simple questions. Before too long, the AI technology will be able to answer the questions the customer has not even asked. Athletic gear brand Under Armour uses an app that provides consumers with insights into their sleep, fitness, activity and nutrition. Thanks to AI-powered tools, the brand can recommend the best workout for any given day, taking into variables such as weather, as well.

Chatbots can get the job done
Already, virtual assistants are being used by various large (online) retailers, banks and tech companies. To the delight of consumers, this means faster service. These chatbots or virtual PAs can deal with simple questions, though the next generation will surely be able to give actual advice and personal attention. Of course, anytime a customer wishes to switch to a human member of staff, they can. All in all, this development means we can expect customer service to undergo an extreme makeover. Is it a positive thing? Are such advances in technology beneficial to customers and can (web) stores fully eliminate human contact? Onlife consumers can be expected to decide in a split second: what kind of customer care is best for me at this point in time? Sometimes it will be a real person and sometimes, a chatbot can get the job done.

The dark side of AI
AI has provoked some serious debate, with some people being fearful of the day when the intelligence of computers and robots will equal or even surpass that of humans. Ray Kurzwell, Google’s very own futurologist, believes that computers will soon be able to outperform humans at many tasks. He expects most of our online searches to be fulfilled without us ever needing to ask for them. This phenomenon is known as singularity and can conjure up some fairly daunting scenarios for the future.

For this reason, Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft set up the Partnership on AI in 2016. Their concern: what would happen if big-data­based algorithms and AI fell into the wrong hands? What do we do if algorithms become smarter than humans? Their aim is to keep a check on the developments in AI, by conducting research together and make pertinent recommendations for the future. Robots and AI are designed to serve people, and this should never change.

Be that as it may none of these worries have held the tech giants back from wholeheartedly embracing and developing AI. All tech giants are wholeheartedly developing AI as part of their goal to become pivotal to our household, for one with their smart home speaker devices. Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod and Google Home are certainly going to stake a claim in the customer journey. It’s part of a new revolutionary shift in consumer behavior from text to voice. “Voice is the next big thing,” explains Werner Vogels, Amazon’s CTO. “It is more natural than a keyboard, and makes technology more accessible.” Smart home speaker devices and digital assistants on your smartphone will effortlessly lead the way to the best restaurant or your favorite store based on their knowledge of your likes and dislikes inside out. In fact, they can invite your friends, send them a route to the restaurant and jot down the date in your calendar, all in one go. These devices will become your personal assistant, thanks to AI learning from your behavior and taking care of you in a personal way.

It has become blindingly obvious, that AI has brought us to the threshold of a new era. A recent UK government report states in no uncertain terms, that AI is bound to improve our quality of life immeasurably.

Next week: how to pay in the smart economy (13)

Blogs from my book

This is blog 12, based on my book ‘The end of online shopping. The future of retail in an always connected world’, published by Business Contact (Dutch/Flemish editions), Nubiz (English edition) Post & Telecom Publishers, Beijing (Chinese edition, from Q1 2018). The book will also be translated into Danish, German, Italian and Portuguese in 2018.