Previously published in Forbes on June 28, 2017
There’s no longer a debate as to whether companies should invest in machine learning (ML); rather, the question is, “Do you have a valid reason not to invest in ML now?”
Machine learning is here, and it’s finally mature enough to cause a major seismic shift in virtually every industry. For example, Matt Swanson, founder of SVSG, wrote an article last year about how chatbots will disrupt a $200 billion industry. While ML cannot solve every problem, it has demonstrated a game-changing impact in enough markets that every CEO and CTO must ask himself/herself whether they understand ML well enough to rule it out for their own business. While appreciating the rewards of ML may be difficult, we do know the risks: ML has already disrupted several industries, including e-commerce, autonomous driving and customer engagement. The risk of ignoring ML today is one that is probably too large for any established company to take.
Machine Learning Changes The Game
While artificial intelligence grabs most of the spotlight in discussions about machine learning (primarily due to its easily graspable life-altering implications), it is but one of many disciplines in ML. Big data has demonstrated the enormous value of data: Netflix and Amazon recommend films and products based on our own purchase history and those of customers like us. Thus, big data has helped us answer questions we already knew to ask, questions such as, “What more can I sell to my customers?”
Machine learning allows us to make even better use of the data we have, as well as the data we don’t currently possess, and answer the questions we didn’t know we should ask.
Machine Learning Uses Data We Don’t Yet Have
Analytics and business intelligence extract information from structured data (i.e., data stored in databases: customer information, purchase history, etc.). But thanks to ML, we can now extract information from unstructured data such as texts, phone calls, images and videos.
Search engines used to return pages based the exact words of the query. ML takes this text analysis a few steps further. First, it extracts concepts out of words and associates pages that discuss the same concept with different words: A search for “artificial intelligence” will produce results that mention machine learning and robotics but not explicitly the words “artificial intelligence.” Beyond this, ML is now becoming proficient at sentiment analysis and determining intent in a given context. This means that ML can deduce, via our posts on social media, if we are happy or angry (sentiment analysis), for whom we are likely to vote for, or what purchase we are considering next (intent).
Similarly, ML techniques like natural language processing (NLP) and image categorization interpret and translate people’s speech as well as the content of images (e.g., facial recognition on Facebook).
This means that, thanks to ML, the huge amount of publicly available content — which, up until recently, was of little use — can now give us useful new insights.
Machine Learning Makes Better Use Of The Data We Have
Machine learning provides a new class of algorithms that manipulates structured data that we already possess. AWS has a nice blog, including code, on how to build a prediction engine for customer churn. BlackRock is using machines to manage funds.
In addition, data that every company gathers from its customers (emails, chats, comments, support requests, etc.) can now be analyzed by ML to extract accurate customer sentiment (satisfaction with the service, suggestions, identifying emergency requests). Even polls and surveys may be replaced by ML algorithms that can mine Facebook, Twitter and news sites to capture the sentiment of millions of people expressing themselves openly.
Machine Learning Answers Questions We Didn’t Know To Ask
At the risk of stating the obvious, the power of machine learning is that it learns. The more information provided, the faster it learns and the better it answers.
While traditional business intelligence techniques can tell us how often products A and B are purchased together, these techniques fail in the face of a massive organization such as Amazon, which sells over 368 million products. However, ML can digest the flow of purchase transactions and identify patterns of joint purchases. ML can even use these predictions to automatically make purchase decisions (see German e-commerce merchant Otto as an example).
Furthermore, by leveraging data we don’t have — such as stock market indices, weather data, political news and government statistics — we can correlate external events with our business data and thus enrich the accuracy of our predictions and decisions.
The rapid growth of machine learning leads to uncertainty, which may entice business leaders to hesitate in utilizing it. Yes, machine learning is complex, but it is also a powerful force of disruption. Because ML is still developing, it presents an opportunity to pull ahead of the competition by taking advantage of this maturation period. The choice is simple: disrupt or be disrupted.
It will take some time to ascertain what use cases are relevant to your company, so it is important to start this investigation now. ML is complex and challenging to master, yet the tools for machine learning are all readily available to you and are already being employed by Amazon, Google and Microsoft.
The journey to machine learning must start now.