Distributors can gain from growing wave of artificial intelligence

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January 29, 2019

With artificial intelligence hitting the mainstream across the business world, Infor participated in a webinar that looked at AI adoption strategies wholesale distributors will need to stay competitive, and the benefits one company is already experiencing.

The potential applications for AI “are vast and varied, and in truth, that’s where the real excitement lies,” said session moderator Daniel Seeger, editor of Industrial Distribution magazine. Panelists pointed to the technology as an essential tool for distributors of all sizes, and a “game-changer” that can get key staff out from behind their keyboards to instead focus on higher-value activities.

The beginning of a wave

Beyond the multiple benefits distributors can take away from the right adoption plan, Infor Director of Project Management Rick Rider pointed to the lightning speed with which different levels of AI are entering the workplace, in what the New York Times called “the beginning of a wave”. Rider’s presentation, drawn from a series of research sources, showed how quickly any business will fall behind if it fails to pick up on the trend.

  • 60% of organizations expected their AI investment to grow more than 50% in 2018.
  • 52% of respondents to a Constellation Research survey reported AI projects in production or in pilots in their IT departments, along with 50% in customer service, 46% in sales and marketing, and 36% in employee productivity.
  • 47% of organizations with “advanced digital practices” have defined AI strategies.
  • 72% of corporate leaders see AI as a “business advantage” that will be fundamental to their future success.
  • AI adoption aligns closely with industry leaders that have developed broader innovation strategies, with 61% of them using the technology to distill future opportunities from the available data.

Rider distinguished four levels of AI capability—from Robotic Process Automation (RPA) at the most basic level to Machine Learning/Deep Learning at the most advanced—based on the extent of a machine’s simulated intelligence. The more effectively an AI system can “rationalize” and perceive patterns, the less teaching and learning it requires. And as AI technology becomes more advanced, the learning can be less prescriptive.

“Reasoning implies that you understand how to deal with deviations,” he said. “Perception implies even a smaller degree of prescriptive learning,” with the AI drawing inferences and conclusions from all the historical data at its disposal. “The more successful you are during the reasoning stage, the more perception mimics reality.”

From digital assistants to inventory management

Even at the relatively basic level of Natural Language Processing (NLP), AI can still deliver fantastic value, with tools like digital assistants that can answer questions via voice or text chat. Infor Development Director Eric Ryerson posted a wide-ranging list of applications—from showing a list of open quotes for inside sales, to telling customer service how many outstanding orders need to be filled today, to tracking products on hand or customer accounts payable—that apply familiar consumer AI technologies in a business setting.

“All these different types of [AI] skills can be built and made available in the same way consumer skills are built,” he told webinar participants. “The challenge here, and the opportunity, is to think about what skills would be useful for your people to be able to leverage.”

Even if business users already have access to some of the information an AI can deliver, Ryerson pointed to the advantages of a system that can intuitively assemble and synthesize data from different components of a company’s software suite—then deliver that data in a variety of formats, without pulling the user back to a terminal or tablet.

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