AI in Ecommerce

Posted by Paul on October 7, 2016

There's a lot in the news lately about AI (Artificial Intelligence) with names like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warning about its dangers and Microsoft saying it will use it to cure cancer in the next 10 years.

AI is generally classed as "narrow" or "strong". Narrow AI is a computer system that can complete a complex task but in a narrow area - such as a computer that can play chess, or even one that can recognise words.

Since the advent of computers, there have been challenges with increasing levels of difficulty for them to solve, ranging from very narrow tasks like performing a lot of calculations to very "strong" tasks like being indistinguishable from a human in a conversation over instant messaging (this is called the Turing Test).

Over time we're seeing computers move along the narrow-strong continuum. The world changed when a computer beat Garry Kasparov for the first time and very recently again when it beat the best human player at a game called "Go" which is far more complex than chess and requires a type of "thought" (or at least pattern recognition) that is far more human.

There's a quiz show in America called Jeopardy with questions that are very different in format to the type of logic that a computer would usually understand and be able to process. IBM's super computer called Watson was able to answer complex word riddles and beat the best human players.

So how does this relate to ecommerce?

If you've been paying attention so far, you'll remember that at the very strong end of the scale - the most advanced test for a super-advanced, insanely intelligent AI, is being able to have an IM conversation. As good as Siri is, unfortunately we don't currently have anywhere near this level of AI, which makes it odd that so many companies have tried to replace human "live chats" with "chatbots". Usually you can tell almost instantly you're talking to a bot and just reach for the phone or close the chat.

At this point, only very narrow (also called weak) AI can help ecommerce shops. These are the sorts of things that might have been called "AI" back in the middle decades of last century (cue 50s stiff upper lip voiceover): "In the future computers will take your order and your payment and you'll receive your order through the post the next day - all from the comfort of your own home!".

Of course, as with any "AI" challenge, once it's achieved, it doesn't really seem so magical and AI like and in this case we call it automation.

With current technology, a lot can be automated, especially in an online shop and this should be the goal in ecommerce, not just to reduce manual work but to vastly increase the speed and accuracy of all parts of the business process.

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