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How One Small Business Uses AI to Fuel Growth

August 21, 2017

AI isn't just for the "big guys." See how a small business can benefit from this technology.

From its founding in 2014, Emerging Technology Advisors has been a company built around elite technologists. "We started as a team helping companies solve complex problems, but our love of all things technological didn't stop there," says co-founder and CEO Glynn LoPresti. "In our spare time, we were building robots, creating developer communities, and teaching kids about technology."

Working from the Refraction incubator, a collaborative co-working community in Reston, Virginia, ETA provides professional services such as infrastructure modernization and development work to a wide variety of clients.

It also supports STEM education through its New DaVinci program, an in-school education series that utilizes emerging technologies like drones, robots, and 3D printers to foster digital literacy and a passion for technology in students from second grade through high school.

The 'cool stuff' crosses over

It didn't take long for the forward-looking work ETA was doing on the philanthropic side to bleed over to the professional services side. Clients began asking the firm for help in educating their workforces about the business potential for things like robotics, virtual and augmented reality, and artificial intelligence.

"Technology is moving so fast that demonstrations we were doing just a year or two ago--including machine learning and AI--have already advanced to the point where our professional services engagements are beginning to include actual implementation of these technologies," LoPresti says.

Passive adoption is the entryway

ETA co-founder and CTO Chris Williams reports that the firm has already helped several clients leverage AI and machine learning to optimize their daily work flows. "This has primarily been through what I call passive adoption, things that leverage AI but happen beneath the surface," he explains. "It's not 'in-your-face' kind of stuff, but it makes a huge difference--a transformative difference--in how people work today."

ETA recently completed a project that leverages AI to help an enterprise organization get access to its information extremely fast and efficiently. "It's done in a just-in-time manner," Williams says. "They don't go seek the data. The underlying machine learning/AI technology figures out what a particular user needs at a particular time and gives them that information."

AI has a learning curve

There is a learning curve involved for the AI algorithm. The underlying concept of machine learning is that algorithms get "smarter" as they are exposed to more and more data over time. Once the models are trained to a sufficient point, it is uncanny how efficient and effective they become at churning through massive amounts of data, Williams says.

Alex Rhea, director, Architecture & DevOps, at ETA, sees tremendous business opportunities for AI in the area of application processes, such as applying for a grant or admission to a college. Currently, all of the data involved in those processes has to be gathered and reviewed by a human being who then makes a decision based on that information.

Decision-making can be much faster

"AI can take in all of the historical data related to a specific decision-making process that has been generated over its lifetime and apply that to a model," Rhea says. It can also understand all the rules and parameters that humans have put in place to make those decisions.

"Think about what that could mean for college admissions, for example," he says. "A process that typically takes months could be made almost instantaneous. The same AI approach can be used to speed up so many mundane business tasks."

Big growth lies ahead

AI and machine learning are still very much engineering-focused, LoPresti says, and difficult for non-tech companies to fully comprehend. But AI is beginning to emerge in the small business space through the passive adoption process Williams described, signaling a trend likely to gain momentum. Eventually, LoPresti believes, AI and machine learning will become standard features in the solutions small and midsize businesses adopt to drive all kinds of processes.

This story originally appeared on Inc.

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