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Rise of the machines in business: How smart bots are harnessing data

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The internet is literally bursting with data. Thanks to two decades of filling it with innovations, information and endless pictures of cats, it’s easy to become entangled in the world wide web and feel information overload. In fact, if we look at the stats, there are currently about 12,180,000 petabytes of information online at the time of writing, according to the Live Counter website. At the rate we’re going – roughly 70 terabytes of information being added every second – the internet will double in size every two years. What’s more, Live-Counter.com’s data suggests that there will be 50 billion devices connected to the internet by 2020.

So what does all this mean? Well, in the first instance, a petabyte is 1,000 terabytes. The average home system now comes with a 1 terabyte hard drive. So, to store a single terabyte, you’d need 1,000 home computers which means you’d need 12,180,000,000 terabyte hard drives. Basically, there’s a ton of data on the internet and it’s only going to increase in the coming years. Naturally, when it comes to life, business and everything else in between, this wealth of information is fantastic. However, while instant access to a myriad of data is helpful, it can also be a hindrance. Think of the old British saying, “separating the wheat from the chaff” and you’ll know what we mean when we say that such a large volume of information can be a hindrance.

A virtual junkyard of ideas

Because it’s possible for anyone to upload anything to the web, there’s arguably a lot of trash out there. As a business owner trying to find useful information, collate consumer data or just make yourself heard, this is a problem. Fortunately, technology is helping to make sense of all this information. OK, so bots aren’t actually literally scrolling through the internet and deleting stuff, but they are helping to condense the most useful parts of it and deliver it to you in a manageable form. Through a combination of algorithms and artificial intelligence, businesses are now finding ways to harvest the masses of data out there in a more efficient way. A simple yet surprisingly effective example of technology helping us to reduce the time we spend sifting through irrelevant information is text summary services. A website called Smmry is one such service that will essentially condense an entire article into seven sentences. After copy and pasting in the text or a URL, the algorithm will scan the text, established the overall theme and then identify the most important bits of information. For those that don’t have the time to trawl through long documents just to find out the latest news or business updates, this tool is very useful.

At the same time clever algorithms are being used to parse text for us to read, they’re also being used by bots to scan text. A joint project by Microsoft and Alibaba has sought to test the limits of AI’s reading comprehension. In a series of man vs. machine experiments, the two tech companies found that the latter was able to outperform humans in assimilating information and answering questions. However, the technology is far from perfect according to Microsoft’s Kevin Scott. Even though the computers could process the text faster than humans, it did make some basic errors which humans wouldn’t. For example, by not understanding that seven was greater than four, the algorithm gave an incorrect answer to the question “Did NFL’s Carolina Panthers get the most interceptions in the 2015 season?”. That being said, computers clearly have the ability to scan, comprehend and then analyze information.

In fact, this technology is now finding homes outside the lab. A recent example is accountancy tech start-up iPaidThat. Going live with its first product in 2016, this company’s software uses bots to simplify the accounting process. Using text scanning algorithms, the software will automatically collect invoices from a user’s inbox, process the contents of the invoice and then compare it to a relevant bank account to check everything is in order. Machines are also being used to identify key events in a company’s day-to-day operations. HubSpot is currently using Kemvi’s DeepGraph to automatically identify changes in a company’s structure, management team and more. Scanning press releases, market reports and more, the software can identify significant events and then offer up its own analysis, which HubSpot’s team can then use focus their pitches to new and existing clients. Similarly, for those in the financial markets, where data is the key to making successful trades, bots are also being used. With more information available than ever before but our eyes and minds unable to process it all efficiently, algorithms are now being used to help traders get the best buy/sell price possible. Indeed, using news and text reading bots, it’s possible to make a +EV investment as a story breaks. Prior to the advent of this technology, traders would have to rely on their own experience and ability to spot breaking news in order to get ahead of the game. Today, bots can digest an influential economic report or news story and act on it within a split second. Text reading trading bots are the most impressive as they can automatically execute buy or sell trades after scanning a document for keywords.

Does this all sound too much like science fiction? Well, how about the story that broke in 2015 about a $2.4 million deal made by a bot? Although it was later suggested that a human was behind the trade, many suspected that a bot was involved somewhere down the line. As the story goes, a bot was able to read a tweet from Dana Mattiolli about talks between Intel and digital circuit manufacturer Altera. Within minutes of the tweet, someone had bought $110,530 worth of cheap options on Altera. By the end of the day, the stock price of Altera had increased dramatically, and the trader had netted a cool $2.4 million. Whether or not it was a bot is a matter of contention, but the fact remains that this is now possible and it’s all thanks to technology being able to wade through masses of information and pick out the salient points.

More efficiency, better service

So, what does this mean for businesses outside of the trading world? Well, in the first instance, it shows that there are ways to locate and utilize information without human intervention. If you were just starting a business and wanted to find out about your potential competition, there already may be an algorithm to help out there. However, one of the best uses of this technology for businesses is customer service. By combining bots, algorithms and AI, businesses can cater to their clients in a more comprehensive and efficient manner. A great example of this technology in action is Amazon’s Alexa. Known as a digital assistant, Alexa can process  terabytes of information in seconds to give the user all the answers they need. Moreover, because Alexa uses AI, it can learn about what the user likes and dislikes. From this, it can improve the accuracy of its results and, in turn, offer a more personal service.

The use of digital assistants is something that’s going to become more pronounced by 2020, according to research by Gartner. If you look at Facebook’s bot program, we’re already seeing digital assistants answering queries, making bookings and solving simple problems as well as responding to simple questions via chat messages. This is predicted to become standard business practice for major companies in the near future. As more data becomes available and bots become more refined, human customer service agents will slowly die out. While that may take some time, it’s not hard to see a point where routine complaints or problems can’t be dealt with by an artificially intelligent program. Although some will see this is as a negative, there are in fact plenty of positives.

As we’ve said, the internet is littered with data and, in reality, much of it is junk – or irrelevant to your query in most cases. Sorting through this manually, whatever industry you’re in, can be painstaking and, ultimately, costly. Software that can take over in this regard will not only reduce search times but improve results. Indeed, the trading bot is a perfect example of this. By acting quickly and decisively on a small amount of information, the software was able to net a huge profit in short space of time. So, while the amount of data online might be reaching epic proportions, it’s not out of control. With technology as it is today, there are plenty of ways to cut through the chaff and harvest the wheat, whatever industry you’re in.

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