AI is revolutionising the way people communicate with the internet. How can SA businesses tap into this enormous potential?


You already know about Uber. In fact, you’ve probably used the mobile app a couple of times already – especially if you’ve been caught without a car in any one of the 65 cities and 31 countries in which it operates. And whether you’re a high-rolling UberBLACK regular or a fee-watching UberX rider, you’ll think of Uber as something between a vehicle-hire company and a personalised taxi service. Given the recent launch of UberEATS, you might even call it an online food ordering company.

Either way, you’d be wrong. According to CEO Travis Kalanick, Uber is a robotics company. Or at least, it’s fast becoming one.

Speaking at February’s World Government Summit in Dubai, Kalanick illustrated his point by describing what happens (and it happens often, especially at OR Tambo’s level 2 drop-and-go) when Uber users are unable to find their driver. Today, the driver will call the rider, or the rider will call the driver to locate them. But, Kalanick asked, ‘when the car doesn’t have a driver, who do I talk to? I’m going to talk to some AI [artificial intelligence] agent, or what they call a chatbot. I’m going to talk to AI to get connected to that car’.

A bot – or interactive chatbot, such as the one Kalanick describes – is a software application that can perform automated tasks. It is, at its most basic, a code or app that (to quote consultancy firm Gartner) ‘does one thing really well’ – that is combine multiple bots and build them up as you would lines of code, and before long you have a complex piece of AI.

Bots’ biggest strength is that they can perform simple and repetitive tasks much faster than their human counterparts, while the more advanced versions can assist with more complex tasks, such as placing a takeaway order, managing your calendar or sending a message to a colleague or friend. A bot such as Apple’s Siri, for example, can easily place a call for you. The advantage is that Siri will do it through voice-prompted conversation without you needing to tap your iPhone screen at all.

Siri aside, you’ve already interacted with bots without realising it. The Google search you did this morning was powered by ‘crawlers’ – bots that hunt around the internet, indexing pages for the search engines. And if you used Microsoft Word back in the ’90s, you may recall Clippy, the much-maligned, incredibly annoying animated virtual assistant that would pop up in the corner of your screen. Clippy didn’t know enough to be useful but Siri does, as do Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana – and the enormous differences between Clippy and the rest highlight the massive advances that have been made in the field.

Riding the wave of those technological advances, Sage launched the first accounting chatbot, Pegg, in June last year. ‘Pegg acts as a smart assistant that allows users to track expenses and manage finances through messaging apps such as Facebook messenger and Slack,’ according to Sage chief technology officer Klaus-Michael Vogelberg.


‘Pegg hides the complexities of accounting and lets entrepreneurs manage finances through conversation, making the process as simple as writing a text. By digitising information at the point of capture, it takes away the hassle of filing receipts and expenses, eliminating the need for paper and data entry.’

Or, to put it another way, Pegg enables you to use your favourite messaging apps to log your expenses and file your receipts, tells you what you have spent or earned for the month, and reminds you instantly who owes you money. The benefits to SMEs and entrepreneurs who may not be able to afford a team of inhouse accountants are obvious.

‘The arrival of bots like Pegg – machine learning and ever-more sophisticated forms of AI – is all about ways to make technology more approachable, fun and powerful for the entrepreneurs and business builders of today and tomorrow,’ Sage executive vice-president for Africa and Middle East Anton van Heerden said ahead of the continent’s inaugural BotCon in Johannesburg last November.

‘Smart bots, alongside the affordability of cloudbased business applications, are one of the trends that we can expect to dramatically change how business builders work in the future.’

Kriti Sharma, Sage’s 27-year-old vice-president of bots and AI, adds: ‘Users can say “spent R50 on Post-It notes at Game” to enter expenses, and ask questions like “how much money did I make last year in October?” or “who is my best customer?”. Some of the most dull, unexciting administrative functions can be the best-use cases for bots.’

The simplification or automation of those dull, unexciting everyday tasks is – ultimately – what bot technology is all about. Online payment firm PayPal confirmed as much with the launch in February of its own payment bot, which allows users on the popular team messaging platform Slack to send money between PayPal accounts without ever leaving their conversation. All you have to do is type ‘/PayPal send $10 to @Mark’, and the AI in the background makes sure the payment is made. It couldn’t be easier.

The business applications of bots and chatbots are endless, as are the cost-saving implications. After all, why would you pay an intern to answer customers’ questions when you could get a piece of code to do it instead at a fraction of the cost?

However, there are some aspects business needs to take into consideration.

‘These bots are not about replacing human beings like accountants or bookkeepers but rather about making it easier for them to get the most from technology,’ says Van Heerden.

Still, the quicker companies get moving on the chatbot journey, the more they can gain.

According to Peter Reid, executive head of Intervate, developers are making huge strides in refining natural language processing, enhancing the sophistication of artificial intelligence and creating ecosystems where specialist bots can communicate and hand over to other bots of a different specialisation.

‘As chatbot technology continues to mature, we’ll start moving into the realm of predictive algorithms – where the chatbot can start initiating the conversation with the user, based on predictions about what the users will need,’ he says.

‘This has the potential to dramatically enhance customer service and satisfaction levels. In time, your chatbot will be able to synthesise and crowdsource information from a vast number of information services, to provide the best possible engagement with users.’

Venturebeat estimates that more than 30 000 branded chatbots hit the global market last year and, according to Gartner, 85% of customer interactions will be managed without a human by the year 2020. For Gartner, though, this is neither a story about HR nor customer relations.

‘Fundamentally, this is a story about data,’ Gartner vice-president Steve Prentice told the 2016 Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Barcelona. ‘It’s about unimaginable amounts of data, and it’s about how that data will help you transform your organisation. Digital business is not the endgame. Digital business is just one stage on a journey – beyond that we have something that we call algorithmic business.’ He went on to list what he calls the ‘ABC’ of disruptive technologies that will transform the user experience: algorithms and AI, bots and chatbots.

‘Fuelled by data, analytics and AI, algorithmic business will continue to grow and disrupt your business,’ said Prentice. ‘This growth is unabated, as algorithms are feasting on the wealth of data that grows inexorably.’

Big data and complex algorithms may seem the province of IT firms but, as Vogelberg warns, ‘every business will need to start thinking of itself as a tech business. To stay competitive, they will need to grasp the opportunities that this development brings with it and change almost every aspect of today’s more or less traditional ways of working’.

He argues that a big part of the business case for bots is based on the fact that they do the small things – those ‘dull, unexciting’ functions – really well. Soon, business admin could become completely invisible (as easy, he adds, ‘as messaging a friend’) or even totally automated.

This, says Vogelberg, ‘will empower entrepreneurs to stay focused on building their businesses, driving growth in the economy and contributing to their communities – not basic admin’.

By Mark van Dijk
Image: Andreas Eiselen/HMimages