More small businesses embrace artificial intelligence

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MSU business professor Sanjay Gupta

Michigan State University

MSU business professor Sanjay Gupta

Capital News Service 

LANSING — A growing number of Michigan small businesses are finding success using artificial intelligence in their daily operations, according to a new survey.

However some researchers caution that AI — the term for technology trained to adapt and learn when presented with new information, much like humans do — is best used under careful supervision.

The Small Business Association of Michigan survey said 26% of small businesses report using AI in marketing, data analytics, virtual assistants and business operations. Another 44% said that AI could help with personalized marketing.

For Ashley Kern, a data scientist, AI-powered personalized marketing is the basis of her business.

Kern is the CEO and founder of Hancock-based SightLine, which helps colleges and universities determine which prospective students to focus on with their recruitment advertising.

Online admissions programs like the Common Application allow students pursuing higher education to easily apply to many schools.

“But that just creates a lot of volume for universities,” Kern said. “They might spend a lot of time and money and energy trying to contact you and work with you, when you’re really not that interested.”

SightLine’s clients include Grand Valley State University and Michigan Technological University.

SightLine’s AI uses data in students’ applications to determine who is really “the right fit for a specific university,” Kern said, which helps the school know whom to target with their advertising.

Kern says she’s used AI on a smaller scale as well, like taking notes during meetings. 

Fellow small business owners have followed suit, Kern said.

Ann Arbor-based business FooDoo uses AI to reduce food waste.

Its software tracks fresh food offered in “Grab and Go” locations in universities and hospitals and uses the information to predict how much will be left at the end of the day and determine trends in consumption.

FooDoo chief product officer Nikita Makarov said the data gives its clients insights into reducing food waste.

“It’s about efficiency,” Makarov said. “We can order the exact same amount (of food) so we don’t waste it.”

But while many small business owners say AI provides innovative solutions to their customers and increases efficiency, some researchers say guardrails need to be in place.

Sanjay Gupta, a professor and former dean of Michigan State University’s business college, said it makes sense that small businesses gravitate towards AI.

“If AI can be deployed in a way to help jumpstart their efforts and reduce the costs associated with doing all that market research and doing customer analysis and so on, that would be a huge value for small businesses that may not have the resources internally to spend on that,” said Gupta, who researches ethical use of AI.

But businesses need to make certain that what they produce using AI aligns with their ethical standards, Gupta said.

“Make sure that you’re not copying somebody else’s work,” Gupta said. “It should truly describe your product and processes of your organization.”

Professor Matthew Katz, who teaches a class on philosophy of technology at Central Michigan University, said it’s important to remember that AI is only as good as the data it’s trained on.

“It would be misleading to think that they’re always perfectly objective or that they’re perfect in any way,” Katz said. 

For that reason, Katz said he’s skeptical of SightLine’s work in higher education.

“If it turns out that most of the students who have matriculated to your university are of a particular race or of a particular gender or particular socioeconomic class, and the system you’re using latches on to that as a pattern, it might end up marketing to those same students,” Katz said. “That then recreates or exacerbates those inequities or inequalities.”

Kern says that while her business is built around the use of AI, “the human element is still so important.”

“We still have a human on our team making sure that what we’re recommending doesn’t have those biases that you might accidentally overlook,” Kerns said.

Central Michigan University professor Matthew Katz

Central Michigan University

Central Michigan University professor Matthew Katz
Ashley Kern, CEO of SightLine in Hancock


Ashley Kern, CEO of SightLine in Hancock

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