A great deal of conversations about artificial intelligence (AI) focuses on exciting, eye-catching aspects of the technology. But some of the most important and prevalent uses are the more mundane examples that are overlooked but helping millions of people everyday do routine tasks more effectively and efficiently.
Practical Applications of Artificial Intelligence
David Parmenter, Director of Data and Engineering for Adobe Document Cloud, shares with me how AI’s more practical applications provide a number of helpful examples of its growing impact on both our personal and professional lives. David also offers up a few ideas for how small businesses can leverage the power of AI to add efficiencies and insights to their efforts.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. To see the entire interview, watch the video below, or click on the embedded SoundCloud player.
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Small Business Trends: Why don’t you give us a little bit of your personal background?
David Parmenter: I work for Adobe Document Cloud, and that’s really the group that focuses on knowledge workers within the company. This is Acrobat, this is Adobe Sign. It’s enterprise work flows, but it totally extends down into small business. Many of our customers are either small businesses or organizations, tight-knit organizations, within larger companies that really are like small businesses. My background is actually in big data, which I’m sure you covered five years ago.
Then actually prior to that, I had worked in speech recognition a pretty long time ago when that was first being commercially viable in the late 90s. Many of the techniques that we used then have been superseded by what we can do now, but it’s the same general feeling. One of the things about AI is these are systems that fail all the time, so it’s quite an interesting problem to work in because it’s like Ted Williams hit 400, that means he failed 60% of the time. It’s much the same with any of these systems that are built on top of probability.
Small Business Trends: Let’s talk a little bit about the more maybe practical side of AI. We here a lot about the high flyer examples, but you look at it from a more pragmatic approach.
David Parmenter: Our point of view for AI generally is that we want to solve real problems. If you’re using Photoshop and something takes a long time to do, we want to use AI to help speed that up. If you are a Creative Cloud customer, you’re getting a lot of AI features already. If you’re a Document Cloud customer, and you use our scan app, you’re already getting some of our Sensei features. Our AI is branded as Sensei, Adobe Sensei. These are basically features that just speed up work that you could have done some other way.
For example, it’s really easy to take a piece of paper from your doctor and take a picture of it and poof, it’s in the cloud. Then you can process it further. You could do this with a scanner, with a flatbed scanner, but we speed it up. Then because it’s a piece of paper, it might be kind of crumpled or look kind of weird. We fix all the imagery on it so that it looks like a flat piece of paper. That’s AI. It can be as simple as that. Believe me, it’s actually not that easy to do in the back office, but from a user’s point of view, you’re already getting an AI feature with something like that.
Small Business Trends: Talk a little bit about the whole idea of how AI is going to impact the future of work.
David Parmenter: I think in some ways AI is not different than high tech generally. High tech will let you do something more efficiently that you could do expensively before. A travel agency would be an example of something that is much, much easier to do now than it was 20 years ago. It also lets you do things that you just can’t do very easily at all.
For example, it would be really, really hard for you to go through all of your log data if you’re running a server, or through all of your customer calls if you’re running a call center, and spot trends. That would just be very, very inefficient. You’d ask your call center people or your ops people, “What’s going on?” They would put their finger in the air and say, “Well, I think this”, but the data could tell you these things. Those kind of workflows I think are accessible to anybody.
Small Business Trends: Let’s talk a little bit about the idea of where this fits in with small businesses. I just participated in a survey, and they don’t think AI is for them. They think that it’s something for bigger enterprises, that it doesn’t really benefit the small guy, but where are you seeing AI fit in with small businesses?
David Parmenter: First off, my message to your audience is you probably have a lot of data, and that data is really valuable. It’s of great interest to companies like mine, so don’t give it away, but on the other hand, don’t waste it. It’s sitting there, waiting to be used. I think that some small business people might say, “This isn’t for me. I’m not Facebook. I’m not Google. I’m not Adobe. I’m not Salesforce”, but I see it a little bit differently. I think there are ways to get in the game.
I’m not a small business owner, but for example, let’s imagine you wanted to have a support line, and a dedicated support staff is really not possible. On the other hand, you understand your domain pretty well. You could train up a chatbot, as an example. I just went to a conference and learned a lot about chatbots. These are real. These are happening now. That’s AI. A lot of times, people are like, “It’s great. I got the answer I wanted in no time at all.” That could be a win.
An example of an AI system that everybody uses today and they don’t even think about it is spam detection. Everybody has a spam detection feature or some kind of fraud detection. You need that. That’s an AI feature that can get you in the game. The next generation beyond that would be what we call in my field anomaly detection. This is, for example, when you find out that your sales are about to dip and you don’t know why, you can measure your sales, but you could also look at the data behind the sales and say, “Well, what were the store visits like? What were our ad impressions like?” There might be secondary things that are hard to relay, but they could be telling you that you’re about to have an event, either that it’s a good one or a bad one. This is a classic anomaly detection field. This is the kind of thing that a data scientist can do now if they have access to the data.
Small Business Trends: How far away are we from AI not being a nice to have but being an absolute must have?
David Parmenter: I don’t think it’s going to be like there’s this day where everything’s AI. It’s not going to be like Skynet or Terminator 4. I think what will happen is it will grow up around us. I saw a great quote the other day, Brent, where somebody said, “When something starts working, it stops being AI.” I really like this because nobody thinks of spam filtering as being AI, but in fact, that’s how it started. I think what you’re going to see is stuff that works. I think the average person in the audience, I imagine, is really watching their pennies. They don’t want to throw money out the window, and so they’re going to look for things that work. They’re going to find out from their peers, “Oh that worked.” That’s how you’re going to see it being adopted. There will be a period in the future …
I guess, Brent, if I had to answer your question, I would say the day you described is pretty far out, let’s say 20 years, but it’s going to start. It’s going to get bigger and bigger as we go.
Small Business Trends: How do we start getting small businesses to realize the impact that AI could have on their businesses?
David Parmenter: I think the average small business, I’m guessing because I don’t work in the field, is going to likely be working with a vendor. The vendor is going to make all kinds of outlandish promises, and I’m sure you’ve seen this over and over again. I’m not here to make any promises at all on behalf of my company. I think what you’re going to see is vendors are going to say, “You have this problem, and we have a solution.” My advice is focus on a real problem, not a toy problem. A really great way to pose the question to yourself is, “If I only knew X, I could do Y”, whatever it is. If in fact you don’t know how to get the answer to X, ask the vendor, “Could you answer this question for me?” If the answer is yes, then that’s a good time to begin the conversation.
Small Business Trends: How is Document Cloud employing AI to help these businesses be more efficient and effective?
David Parmenter: I think that there’s several different answers. The short term answer is that we have AI features built into our Sensei, into our Adobe Scan app, which you can get in the app store for free right now. They’re pretty slick. Give that a try. Then the other answer I would say is you need to come back to me later this summer.
Small Business Trends: Oh. There’s some news that you can’t talk about now.
David Parmenter: That’s correct.
Small Business Trends: Okay. For folks to be able to do that, where can they go to learn more about what Adobe is doing on Document Cloud?
David Parmenter: They should come to adobe.com, and they can look up the Document Cloud. You’ll see quite a bit of information about what we do now and what the problem space that we’re in, which is really for knowledge workers of all stripes. The other thing I recommend people do is continue to track Adobe Sensei and look for our corporate pronouncements across the entire, future suite. We’re making a series of really bold announcements pretty much every month in terms of the kind of things that Adobe is tackling with its Sensei brand.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.