Experts reveal best ways to use AI to solve business problems

WHAT is artificial intelligence (AI) – and how can businesses use it to increase their profits and enhance their services – were among the big questions at The Herald’s inaugural AI Business Breakfast in Glasgow yesterday.

The event attempted to unlock the mystery surrounding the world of AI and “machine learning”, with a panel of industry experts outlining how their companies utilise data across a raft of disciplines, from predicting trends and targeting the right customers to solving problems and making better decisions.

It was sponsored by Brodies LLP, Cathcart Associates, Incremental Group and University of Strathclyde, and took place at Everyman in Princes Square.
Elizabeth Hollinger, head of analytics and BI at Glasgow-based Aggreko, the global provider of temporary power solutions that is powering this year’s Rugby World Cup and the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, said: “AI means different things to different people, but, for us, it means using data to solve business problems, big or small – data is at the heart of all our decision-making.”

At The Data Lab, an organisation that works with industry, the public sector and academia across Scotland from four hubs, Craig Paterson, executive education adviser, had another take on AI. “It’s not about robots taking over the world,” he said. “It’s how can we use it to drive value and what are the opportunities to do that in your business.

“There are two conversations – one is about being clever and the other is about being useful. In healthcare, for example, if you have a group of six consultants, AI is the seventh – it’s there to help make better and smarter decisions – working with people, not replacing them.
“AI is not replacing jobs because jobs are made up of a series of tasks – some tasks are disappearing – so it is important not to fear AI but to look at the opportunities. In 10 years people will be laughing at the thought of a panel like this talking about AI.”

Far from replacing people and a world away from driverless cars, AI has the power to enhance employee engagement, productivity and customer interactions, the panel concurred.

Deyrick Smith, area manager commercial at Clydesdale Bank, said: “AI is helping customers with budgeting and assists us with credit
decision-making – it’s all about enabling and enhancing, and extracting meaningful data that helps your business.”
Sam Rhynas, head of operations at Edinburgh-based Stochastic Solutions, pointed to the public perception of AI with “some people still viewing it as something out of 1970s science fiction”.
She said: “It is important to talk about AI as something that can benefit everyone and remember that there are people who don’t understand what it is – they hear all the phrases and acronyms and buzzwords and want to know more about it.”

Dr Adam Sroka, data and AI director at Glasgow-based digital technology firm Incremental Group, one of the event’s sponsors, discussed how in his career he had worked with companies across various sectors, including manufacturing, insurance and retail, to use complex data to improve efficiencies.
Data, he pointed out, is “rich and plentiful”, and can be used in many different ways. Dr Sroka highlighted how a retailer he worked with was able to use it to focus on how customers ordered online. “It exposed hidden patterns and found that some of the highest-spending customers were responsible for the highest number of returns,” he said.

But he also touched on the “dark side” of AI, the ethics surrounding it and its unintentional consequences, using as an example the use of algorithms in the US to provide recommendations on prison sentences.

Speaking after the event, Dr Sroka said: “It was a pleasure to be surrounded by some of the field’s most knowledgeable experts and a range of different business users all passionate about the use of AI to enhance their business processes and drive competitiveness.”