Artificial intelligence for small and medium-sized enterprises
Interview with Lara Waltersmann, Research Associate, Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA, Department of Sustainable Production and Quality Management
How and where can artificial intelligence (AI) help small businesses? Lara Waltersmann from the Fraunhofer IPA looks into this issue. COMPAMED-tradefair.com spoke to her about the recently in german published study titled "Capabilities of weak artificial intelligence for operational resource efficiency".
Ms. Waltersmann, what is the difference between weak and strong AI?
Lara Waltersmann: Weak AI is a type of artificial intelligence that focuses on specific applications, whereas strong AI is a theoretical form of machine intelligence that is equal to human intelligence. The latter is based on its own cognitive performance, while mathematical models are specially designed for individual use cases in the case of weak AI. This type of weak AI already exists and is used in multiple areas. This is not the case for strong AI. Strong AI could become more intelligent than humans and will be applicable in various fields, but we are still a long way away from it.
You and your colleagues have researched where it might make sense for SMEs to adopt weak AI technology. The objective is to free up resources. How did you proceed?
Waltersmann: The team studied each company individually to identify a starting point. Our study focused on resource efficiency, meaning a more efficient use of natural resources such as energy, material, water, and emissions. However, we generally recommend that companies look for collaboration opportunities. Many collaborative networks offer assistance. You also need to conduct a feasibility study or market potential analysis. Those are the first steps. Once you have identified these starting points, you can start the implementation.
Title page of the german study.
Can you give us an example of this process?
Waltersmann: We have found that companies that already use large amounts of data can benefit the most because you can use this data - usually after data preparation – for analysis with artificial intelligence to conduct a business potential analysis. This can reveal areas where business processes can be optimized.
What do you tell an entrepreneur who asks you how this will benefit his/her company?
Waltersmann: As I said before, this varies and depends on the case, but you will definitely identify any untapped potential. The advancing digitization and ever-increasing amounts of data also help companies to prepare their business for the future. Entrepreneurs should use this data for process optimization. That way, they stay competitive, cut costs, and save resources.
How capital and labor intensive is this step for the individual company?
Waltersmann: That depends on the SME’s situation. For our study, we created a maturity model for companies as a self-assessment tool. Data is the foundation for weak AI implementation. It would indeed be very time-consuming if companies do not have data or must first collect it in a separate step. But if they have available data, they can often adapt a standard solution to fit their case. Or – as I said before – they can request external help. Examples include collaborations and networks that offer support pertaining to this subject.
There is still no strong AI that would be superior to humans.
Are there any reliable statistics on how many SMEs are already using weak artificial intelligence applications?
Waltersmann: I think it's still too early for that. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any studies that deliver these specific figures. What’s more, artificial intelligence is a very broad area, which ranges from very simple applications to highly complex mathematical models. Much is still in its infancy, especially as it pertains to SMEs. Therefore, I regrettably cannot give you any concrete numbers at this juncture. However, we hope our study inspires companies to use AI to increase their resource efficiency and delve deeper into this issue.
What was the feedback of the SMEs pertaining to your study?
Waltersmann: The companies we approached for our study gave very positive overall feedback. They used artificial intelligence and understood the full potential of it. Companies were able to reduce costs and improve efficiency by increasing capacity utilization at their facilities, for example. The participants truly appreciated this aspect. While the use of AI to increase resource efficiency was not yet a priority for these companies, we hope this will change in the near future.
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