By Dr Kendra Vant, below, Executive General Manager of Data, Xero
If you ever worked with Office 97, you’ll remember Microsoft’s iconic assistant Clippy. The animated AI-based paperclip would pop up in your document and offer to help you format whatever you were working on. Clippy would analyse and structure words in your document and help you format it according to what you were working on. For example, if anything vaguely resembled a resume, you would be prompted with “It looks like you’re writing a resume! Perhaps a resume template will help?”.
In 2023, Clippy’s legacy lives on in our everyday lives in the form of much more advanced personal digital assistants powered by emerging techniques in artificial intelligence (AI). The latest example is OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which has led to a growing public awareness of AI and its impending impact on business, industry and people. Some are even calling it a watershed moment for society, as significant as the invention of the printing press or advent of the world wide web.
For small businesses who are already comfortable in the digital realm and happily making use of time saving features of many products that are powered by AI, the public release of ChatGPT has sparked excitement over the possibilities it unlocks. For others yet to dip their toes into the world of human-machine augmentation and AI, you may be wondering what the fuss is all about. You may even be feeling apprehensive about the changes it could bring to how you do business.
AI, warts and all, is here to stay. As a species we just don’t lock genies back into bottles. But it’s also important to note that ChatGPT and associated rollouts like Bard and AI-enabled Bing, for all that they can initially appear close to magical in their abilities, are a way station along the road as AI continues to evolve at pace. More change is definitely coming and the AI techniques hitting prime time today could have broad implications for the type and manner of work conducted by small businesses in the near future.
That is why it’s vital to understand its uses and limitations now, to set your business up for success.
What actually is ChatGPT?
ChatGPT belongs to a class of AI techniques known as generative modelling. It’s trained to mimic the complex statistical relationships that exist between words in a language, hence the technical name of Large Language Models or LLMs. Using these learned statistical relationships, LLMs produce responses to a very wide range of questions and look like they could have been written by a human.
LLMs can communicate in plain English, write and revise text, and write code. In doing so, it opens up the potential for small businesses to produce more work, faster than ever before. For example, ChatGPT’s ability to do all different kinds of writing like generating boilerplate text for proposals, means it could prove useful for small businesses – particularly those less fluent in the dominant language in their market or less comfortable with writing.
Why all the buzz now?
For many professionals working in AI, generative AI is not new news. What makes ChatGPT noteworthy and exciting is not actually the underlying models themselves – but the simple (free for now) ‘human accessible’ interface and the wide availability. You don’t have to be an AI expert nor a programmer to play around with the amazing capabilities offered by ChatGPT and that’s been a game changer in capturing the public imagination.
While LLMs have been around for a while, the end-to-end ChatGPT user experience (which, critically, includes an intuitive, easy to use user interface!) has changed the game. As Ethan Mollick examines, “It’s genuinely useful for a wide range of tasks… While previous generations of the system could technically do these things, the quality of the outputs was much lower than that produced by an average human. The new model is much better, often startling so.”
ChatGPT is not without its limitations, as many enthusiastic tinkerers have discovered. As with most new products, many aspects need further development and there are rough edges that need rounding off. However, the tempting smorgasbord of real world applications presented has been met with a wave of investment and hype and led to a race among the major players. How many of these applications have a commercially robust business model once the hype subsides will play out over the next year or so.
So, what does this mean for my business?
For now, ChatGPT is proving to be a useful tool for generic writing purposes, particularly for those who need some inspiration, help breaking writer’s block or those who need a head start to translate technical documents into layman’s terms. In the next 12 months, we will likely see a wave of applications built on top of generative AI models like GPT3 (the model that sits behind ChatGPT).
Some will save us so much time we’ll forget how we used to live without them. Some will be solutions looking for problems and many will simply be out there with no sustainable business model aside from being bought out by a bigger company. To distinguish between the useful, the shonky and the revolutionary, small businesses should approach ChatGPT in the following ways:
- Experiment, but with caution
The best place to start is with experimentation. There is value to be had in playing around with the tool to test its knowledge, its limitations and boundaries. First-hand experience of the tool can help you understand how it could be used in your business and the wider industry. But a word of warning: as with all technology that is free and open, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. And the usage model (free to use right now) could change at any time and without warning.
- Think of it as a business tool
One way to think about ChatGPT is as a tool alongside the many other tools you use everyday in your business. For some small businesses, ChatGPT and other language models may seamlessly integrate into their existing business platforms, and work behind the scenes to speed up existing processes. It will likely integrate into digital experiences they’re already familiar with, like generating reports.
But remember, just like you need many tools to build a cabinet, ChatGPT should be used in conjunction with other business tools – it can’t be relied upon in isolation.
- Analyse the likely impact
ChatGPT has the potential to create new business models, jobs and workflows. Small businesses should consider the tools and processes at the heart of their business and how AI technology could assist. For example, automating customer service and responding to customer requests. This means understanding not only how the technology could be used in chatbots, SMS and email for personalised messages, but how AI could free up your teams to focus on improving the customer experience.
We’re just at the beginning of this AI epoch and there’s no telling for sure where it will lead us. By being open to adapting and experimenting, arming yourself with knowledge and working with advisors to decode its impact and opportunities, you’ll be better placed to incorporate AI into your business in a way that genuinely adds value to your bottom line.