Running a small business is hard. Often, small business owners have no one to rely on but themselves. Cash is tight. Bills are high. Are there even any margins at all? Global conglomerates like Amazon and Alibaba add to the problem, strip-mining them of innovations and driving them into oblivescence.
But there is hope in an unlikely ally: Artificial Intelligence.
The last great revolutions in technology and the workforce revolved around energy and, later, computing. Harnessing the power of steam led to a revolution in the means of production and transportation. Humans were no longer reliant on manual labor and animals to manufacture items and transport them to their final destinations. The computer revolution and the associated information technology revolution (the World Wide Web) automated the transport of information and the way people buy and sell goods.
Too much has been said about the evils of artificial intelligence — about how intellectual work will be automated, jobs will be lost, and we’ll enter a world where the top 1% will continue to amass more and more money and power. So far, to be sure, AI has been used to serve the 1%, meaning the banks, the hedge funds, Facebook, and Google: The elite. AI is expensive and requires a level of expertise and mastery, which makes it what we might call a “deep technology.”
The point that is often missed is that the jobs AI automates are jobs that are equally fit for big factories and for small businesses. If AI is used to make self-driving cars, which it will, that puts Uber drivers in the position of owning the means of production — a car that drives itself. Financing for this small business is absolutely appropriate for a small business owner, but it allows for the privatization of the means of production. The small business owner can take out $20K loans on more than just the Toyota Camry they drive. They can take it out on five, thereby giving them a viable means of providing for their families.
To prove the point: A long-haul truck driver who drives 50 weeks a year makes somewhere around $150,000; however, they pay about $100,000 for fuel and $30,000 for expenses. That means they have a take-home pay of just $20,000. By owning a small fleet of self-driving trucks, these individuals can spend their time managing their business instead of spending their time driving just one truck.
To offer another example, computer vision provides a way to quality control other means of production, including 3D printers. 3D printers currently require operators to run and manage their print output, which is error-prone and expensive. While MakerBot, and countless competitors, brought 3D printing to the home — utilizing computer vision, AI in 3D production can potentially enable a home 3D print business that runs itself.
AI and computer vision can and will likely enable a multitude of small business use cases that we are only beginning to uncover fully.