*This article was written by Kris Miller, SVP of Strategy at eBay, and originally appeared on techonomy.com.
Artificial intelligence is going to destroy the world. At least, that’s what you’d understandably think after reading many of today’s headlines.
But there’s another side to the AI story. AI actually helps small- and medium-sized businesses to compete more effectively, and at scale, leveling the playing field much like the internet did decades ago. We see this every day in e-commerce, where AI allows small- and medium-sized businesses to reach global markets and creates opportunities for personalization and discovery.
In an era where retail stalwarts like Toys R Us, JCPenney and Bon-Ton are closing brick-and-mortar stores, or totally going out of business, AI technologies can create economic opportunity. AI offers tangible ways for new market entrants, niche brands and main street stores to succeed in today’s challenging environment.
AI is shrinking the world. Small and medium-sized businesses are now empowered to tap into global markets when they have access to AI technology. For example, we see 97 percent of eBay-enabled small businesses in the U.S. export globally, compared to only 1 percent of traditional businesses. Just think about a buyer in China discovering a new item from a seller in the UK. One enters their listing information in English and the other searches in Mandarin. The real work is happening behind the scenes, with machine translation seamlessly connecting the buyer and the seller, enabling the transaction and dramatically extending a small seller’s reach.
AI is personalizing experiences. Consumers are increasingly spending their time on social media and messaging apps, on video and with voice-enabled devices. In the U.S., young adults spend 43% of their time on digital platforms, according to Nielsen’s Total Audience Report: Q1 2018. And out of all the measured generations, these young adults spend the most time on their smartphones—making up for nearly a third of their time.
To keep up with digital natives, brands and retailers need to be where consumers are—anytime, anywhere. This is the rise of distributed commerce. AI makes those browse experiences more personalized, better marketing the right products to the right people based on AI’s understanding of the buyer’s intent. This enables growth for small- and medium-sized businesses by introducing a buyer to a new brand in a relevant way.
AI is powering image recognition. Today, a consumer can use pictures instead of words to find products. Let’s say you are browsing a fashion blog featuring trendy styles from Japan’s Harajuku district. You love a graphic print backpack but have no idea where to buy it or how to describe it. A buyer can now simply use a photo to search for that backpack. This “camera as a platform” model allows for discovery-based shopping in ways that have been out of reach for online commerce until now. Visual search already represents 1 billion searches a month, as cited in eMarketer’s Visual Search 2018 report. And the number is increasing quickly—growing more than 50% a year at companies like Pinterest.
These examples underscore how AI levels the playing field for small- and medium-sized businesses. AI helps buyers connect with sellers around the world—seamlessly. It helps surface the most relevant inventory for a given user, creating a more personalized experience. And AI enables easy discovery of new brands and products through image recognition. This technology makes it easier for consumers to find an item that appeals to them without first knowing the name of the brand or store.
These are just a few examples. There are many additional ways AI is supporting small businesses—from AI-powered chat bots to AI-enabled recommendation systems to autonomous vehicles helping automate last-mile deliveries. AI services are being democratized through platform providers like eBay, Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services.
There’s still uncertainty about exactly what type of world AI will enable. One where AI replaces jobs through automation or another where AI augments our lives and creates new opportunities for small- and medium-sized businesses—and the people behind them. The paradox lies at this intersection of humans and technology, with human decisions becoming much more critical as AI-enabled automation becomes more prevalent. The truth about AI today is that it’s what people do with it that will dictate the future.