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Why I Wish Artificial Intelligence Was Around When I Started My Business

AI, now affordable to everyone thanks to the cloud, can help us become better and more creative leaders.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

A day doesn't go by that I don't think about how I could have done a better job of running my business, which until my partners and I sold it, was an American restaurant called Molly's Lone Star, located in the French town of La Rochelle.

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So, every time I walk into a restaurant, which is almost every day, I look at how other people are running their business. I look at how the waiters do their side work, how the traffic flow of clean and dirty dishes is organized, and I peer at the latest point-of-sale technology. I daydream about how much easier our work would have been, and how much more profitable we could have become.

Labor is by far the hardest thing to manage in a restaurant -- you constantly have to think about having enough people during rushes, scheduling time off for your full time staff, making sure your employees are presenting your restaurant in the right light, and making sure your best staff aren't poached by a competitor.

It may sound simple, but you can't really do all that effectively without a crystal ball -- or basic artificial intelligence (AI). How do we do on Sundays? How about Sundays at the end of a long weekend? Sundays during the summer versus the fall? If it's rainy but unseasonably warm?

Who's making good tips? Who has too many hours? Who can we find to fill in for a line cook who's about to go on vacation?

These are the kinds of issues for which there were no easy answers back in the late 1990s. You can keep the most accurate records possible, but at least where our management team was concerned, there were simply too many variables to hold in our minds at one time.

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AI wasn't available to us then -- and to the extent that it existed, it was too expensive. Massively, ridiculously, unapproachably expensive.

That was actually the case for most technology, especially specialized software. Today, though, a company our size could have easily afforded cloud software. And today, cloud software is becoming more sophisticated and easy to use than even the most expensive software of the past, all while remaining more accessible to small businesses like ours than ever before.

Probably the biggest stumbling block to implementing AI is the fear it seems to generate -- not only because it's the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which introduced the world to HAL 9000, the milky-voiced AI imbued with enough self-awareness to turn malevolent at the expense of its human users.

Serious academics like Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have written about the lurking danger of "technological unemployment," and even people who should know better (I'm looking at you, Elon Musk) have warned about the looming robot apocalypse. The MIT economists write that "as digital technologies race ahead, they have the potential to leave many workers behind."

But, it turns out that quite the opposite is happening. AI is making many jobs more enjoyable and fulfilling -- especially the types of jobs Brynjolfsson and McAfee warned were most at risk. The evidence for this is mounting as we speak.

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AI is a job creator.

According to a recent study of the impact of automation in the U.K. by Deloitte, automation could create four times more jobs that it eliminates -- at a higher rate of pay, no less. "AI often means that employees can spend more time on complex tasks for which they are uniquely suited, like interacting with customers or brainstorming innovative new campaigns," notes VentureBeat in its report on the study.

"Automation will displace many jobs over the next 10 to 15 years, but many others will be created and even more will change," notes McKinsey in a recent story. The McKinsey Global Institute also recently estimated that between 20 million and 50 million jobs will be created by 2030 thanks to automation.

Jobs -- even restaurant jobs -- are also likely to become more interesting, as the more tedious and repetitive tasks are the ones most likely to be automated. That will leave people to perform the parts of those jobs that are more variegated and thus inherently more interesting.

Alexandra Guajardo, the morning shift leader at a Dunkin' Donuts shop in Corona, Calif., is more likely to stick with her employer longer now that it has automated parts of her job, she told the Wall Street Journal. "I don't have to constantly be worried about other smaller tasks that were tedious ... I can focus on other things that need my attention in the restaurant," she said.

Indeed, it turns out that most employees -- the very people economists and other prognosticators worry about -- are more than on board with AI; they're bullish on it. Asked to pick three from a list of eight potential impacts on their jobs, employees said AI will improve operational efficiencies (59 percent), enable faster decision-making (50 percent), significantly reduce cost (45 percent), enable better customer experiences (40 percent) and improve the employee experience (37 percent), according to a recent survey by HR advisory and research firm Future Workplace, and Oracle, my employer.

Ninety-three percent also said they would trust orders coming from a robot, probably because they're already used to taking orders from Siri and other home digital AI gizmos. As employees, "they see the potential of AI," notes Dan Schwabel, research director at Future Workplace.

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Love the one you're with.

To be sure, there is a cautionary note underlying the sanguine surveys from McKinsey and Deloitte: Some jobs will be automated out of existence, and people will have to "reskill." Depending on your perspective, the term "reskill" sounds like something either a bloodless technocrat or a timid human resources professional would say.

But, yucky jargon aside, anyone old enough to be reading this has seen this before. Remember secretarial pools, pink notes with phone messages written by the office receptionist while you were out to lunch and word processors -- not the machines; actual people whose job it was to turn executive scribbles into legible type?

No one misses those jobs, and those of us who worried about the job prospects for the people doing them were unfairly underestimating their ability to adapt. It turns out there were more satisfying, more highly paid jobs for those people to do.

One thing I'm certain of: If I ever open another restaurant, I'll make use of inexpensive AI and cloud technologies to help me make better decisions.

Michael Hickins

Written By

Michael Hickins is director of media strategy at Oracle. The former founding editor of The Wall Street Journal's CIO Journal, he also ran a restaurant in France and is a published fiction writer and essayist.