It’s that time again. The end of one year, and a new one just ahead. Mid-sized businesses have a lot to look forward to, as technology solutions previously reserved for large enterprises gradually make their way into their space. To help you cope with all the changes, I’ve put together a list of the five most important technology trends for mid-sized businesses that promise to take center stage in 2019.
Advice #1: Create human-machine “centaurs” to run your business efficiently
Yes, the robots are here. No, not just industrial machines on factory floors, but software robots (also called “bots”), which are algorithms that run within your computer systems. Bots are created by robotic process engineering (RPA) programs, of which sales are accelerating wildly and have already taken over all sorts of manual business tasks that humans have traditionally done. Things like processing invoices, generating purchase orders, even onboarding new employees are already being automated. But unlike many of the panicked headlines you read in the press, a consensus is growing that RPA is not about replacing your human workforce, but augmenting it.
The idea is that humans plus machines will build the best workforce of the future – Not solely humans anymore – but certainly not machines alone.
These human-machine collaborations were called “centaurs” by chess master Garry Kasparov, who concluded after being beaten in 1997 by IBM’s “Deep Blue” computer that “weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone, and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.”
Why? Because machines have no capacity to think creatively and make the illogical connections and leaps of faith that characterize a good, engaged, and valuable employee. So perhaps a bot processes 99% of all P.Os. But if it spots one that is over a certain amount, or which is not quite right, the bot sends it to a human worker who sorts it out. Human plus bot: the best of all worlds, as the human is free of repetitive tasks to focus on aspects of work that require his or her innate creative and cognitive capabilities.
According to PwC, 65% of workers today believe that such partnerships would free them from menial tasks that they don’t like. Almost as many (64%) believe that machines will open up new opportunities for them to advance in their careers.
Advice #2: Embrace AI if it helps your business, but be acutely aware of bias
It made headlines around the world: Amazon had been using an AI tool for recruiting that was biased against women.
This wasn’t done on purpose, of course. The retail giant had been building AI models since 2014 to help sift through the huge amount of resumes it receives, and identify top candidates. But by 2015, the company realized the tool was severely prejudiced against those of the female persuasion. That’s because of the way a certain kind of AI, called “machine learning” works: It takes a huge amount of data, and finds patterns in it, and then continues to learn as it processes more and more data. But in the male-dominated tech industry, the machine logically learned that most successful candidates—especially for higher-level positions—were filled by men. It concluded that men were the best fit for most jobs. So it started downgrading women’s resumes. Amazon immediately ceased using the program as soon as it understood what was happening, according to the company.
AI is seeping into every aspect of our lives. Most of the time we don’t even realize it. Although we tend to think of machines as emotionless and neutral, nothing can be further from the truth. AI models are created by humans who make up rules—and humans themselves are not emotionless and neutral. And if the data that is used to feed and teach these systems is biased—as is very possible, given the dynamics of modern society—the AI systems will be biased, too.
Experts are cautioning that bias is already pervasive in many AI programs, and that few people are correcting it (see “Biased Algorithms Are Everywhere, and No One Seems to Care”). For example, some court systems use an AI-based system that assesses the likelihood that a particular prison inmate will re-offend. The system has been found to be racially biased. AI systems used to predict credit worthiness by banks have turned out to have the same problems.
The best way to avoid that is to make machine-learning models transparent. But at this point, most are “black boxes” that prevent people from seeing how decisions are being made. So if someone tries to sell you an AI system without being able to explain how it makes its decisions, or what data it uses to make its decisions, proceed warily.
Trend #3: Get used to conversing with machines
Voice is the interface of the future. The world’s technology giants are battling it out to produce the best technology and grab the most market share. As voice was once only found in smartphones via digital assistants like Siri, we’re starting to see voice in all sorts of devices for both the home and the office. Comscore predicts that 50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020.
Currently, most vendors are focused on getting voice-activated assistants into homes, but this is a Trojan horse. The goal is to begin capturing control of all sorts of intelligent devices in the “Internet of Things” (IoT). For example, a Google Home or Amazon Echo can already be harnessed to manipulate smart lights, smart fridges, headphones, and smoke alarms. More, many more, are on the way.
So far, intelligent devices have been mostly about home applications. But as more tech vendors begin developing voice-first interfaces for their products, it will impact the workplace, too. Take Amazon’s Alexa for Business, which will help employees use voice commands to start video conferences, print documents, or perform other tasks. As natural language processing technology improves, machines will excel at taking dictation in meetings, eliminating the need for humans to take notes or listen to recordings later.
With a report by Tractica forecasting that native speech recognition will grow from 45% of all mobile devices to 82% by 2020, there seems to be nothing stopping the technology from reaching virtually everyone.
Trend #4: Be aware that the more intelligent devices that surround you, the more vulnerable you become
In the future, almost every object that surrounds you will be “intelligent.” This means it will have a sensor or even some processing power in it so that it can be connected to the Internet, and both send and receive data. From the routers in your network, to your lighting and HVAC systems, to the locks on your doors, and even the blinds that shade your offices during times of direct sunlight, business environments—like homes—are getting smarter and smarter. And all these things will be interconnected.
All this is happening very quickly. In 2017, 29% of businesses had deployed IoT solutions, but this is expected to surge to 48% in 2018, as businesses are increasingly eager to benefit from the cost savings, convenience, and productivity-boosting aspects of the IoT.
But the IoT also has its downside: poor security.
With all that IoT offers, many businesses aren’t considering the tremendous security vulnerabilities these devices bring with them. Think of all the additional entry points on your network, plus the fact that there are no security standards yet for IoT devices. Install an IoT device on your network, and you’ve got a gaping security hole. By 2020, 25% of cyberattacks will target IoT devices.
More than half (54%) of IoT device owners don’t use a third-party security solution to protect their devices—no virus detection, no firewalls, nothing. More than a third (35%) don’t change the default password on their devices.
So what to do? Proceed carefully. Ask probing questions about any IoT devices you are thinking about purchasing. Do your research. For now, there are few solutions.
Trend #5: Keep ethics and privacy at the forefront of your customer relationships
There’s HIPAA, there’s PCI, and now GDPR, if you do business in Europe. Those are all laws that require you to keep various kinds of customer information safe and private. But in today’s environment, in which your customers are more and more aware that you’re collecting and using their data to advance your own ends, you have to go beyond doing the minimum. You have to act ethically when it comes to customer data.
You may already rely heavily on consumer-generated data. You might use it in product development, strategic planning, and targeted marketing campaigns. When the information is used effectively, however, it is the consumer who may ultimately benefit, as it can enable companies to enhance the customer experience and provide innovative products and services. Deloitte found that most consumers will agree to share their data if they feel they’re getting value in return.
So what should you do?
- Be completely transparent about how you intend to use your customers’ data
- Allow customers to easily opt out of sharing their data
- Offer short and easily understandable privacy policies
Interesting times we live in – times in which emerging technologies originally built for larger enterprises are much more swiftly moving down the chain to mid-sized and even small businesses. That’s because of the elasticity and economies of scale of so many of today’s digital products and tools—many of which are based in the cloud, and increasingly have interfaces that are friendly to business users. Keep your eyes on these, and see how they can transform your business in 2019.