(This column originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Even if your small business is not currently using ChatGPT or other AI technology, you likely will be soon. That means it’s important for you to get up to speed fast. Here are five things you should know before jumping in.
ChatGPT is a conversational chatbot that uses natural language to answer questions and help automate tasks. Chatbots have been around for a while, but ChatGPT, which is made by OpenAI, has been widely regarded as more advanced and easier to use because it has been “trained” on a significant amount of public data and can be conversational about a wide range of topics. When asked a question, it will answer — and then carry on a conversation about the topic — as if a human were responding. When asked to perform certain tasks, it can do so as if a human were doing it.
ChatGPT is not a search engine like Google or Microsoft’s Bing, which displays links to websites based on keywords. It has no “thoughts” of its own. It is not a robot, a machine or a stand-alone business application. It does not have all the answers. It does not know everything. It is not always accurate. It is not a sentient being.
ChatGPT’s most recent version — GPT4 — was released in November. There are countless ways a small-business owner can use it now.
For example, you can ask it to write blogs for your website in a certain style or based on certain parameters or suggest other changes that will optimize the performance of your website. It can create legal and policy documents. It can suggest better wording for a real estate listing or a product description. It can write software or help correct existing code. It can perform detailed online research, answer legal and human resources questions, write job listings, do advanced mathematical analysis, compose sensitive email communications, translate (or create) documents in a different language, and even offer business advice.
The key is knowing what to ask, and a great resource to help you do that is this guide created by website hosting service GoDaddy.
Because OpenAI is licensing its technology to outsiders, a number of technology firms have been developing applications based on its algorithms that can do anything from quickly summarizing YouTube videos to transforming photos into anime art. But the real impact on small business will come when Big Tech companies release new versions of their productivity applications and other major business software providers incorporate the software into their own platforms. Some of this is already happening.
For example, Microsoft — a big investor in OpenAI — is providing tools to its developer community and will soon incorporate more of ChatGPT’s technology in its Office 365 and Teams applications so that e-mails can be sent, tasks performed, documents written, pre-meeting reconnaissance conducted, post-meeting conversations summarized and presentations created based on commands from the user that leverages their own data.
Google is doing the same with Gmail and Google Workspace using its own ChatGPT rival called Bard. The popular collaboration platform Slack is using ChatGPT to perform research and automatically send communications to customers. Instacart is incorporating the technology to help its customers make buying decisions. Buy Now Pay Later service Klarna is using the technology to make product recommendations and give shopping advice.
Ultimately, ChatGPT’s technology — and other conversational AI tools like it — will be incorporated into most of the business applications we use every day. Already there are enhanced versions of it — called AutoGPT — which can be trained to do work and take actions without any human involvement. These applications will be used to independently give answers to customers, solve problems for technicians, send invoices, reconcile accounts, place orders, recommend new services to managers, and launch marketing campaigns. As the technology grows in popularity it will be embedded in machines, robots and factory equipment to manage production time, adjust for external factors like temperature and moisture, alert for potential safety and performance issues, and guide operators for effective and safe usage.
With all its potential, ChatGPT and similar AI technology has its drawbacks. There are many issues about its accuracy and potential bias. People are concerned that it will replace jobs. Others are worried about it becoming smarter than humans with catastrophic consequences, such as influencing elections, misleading public sentiment, or potentially taking control of infrastructure or military installations without permission. Tech luminaries like Elon Musk and Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak have been pushing for a pause in its development and are urging government regulators to get more involved in its oversight.
These concerns are justified. Like any technology that has the potential to change the world — the printing press, the automobile, the Internet, the iPhone — ChatGPT will create serious challenges that will need to be addressed as it evolves.
Now that you know a bit more about ChatGPT, you’re probably wondering: So what should I do now?
I don’t believe these risks should stop small business owners from embracing this type of automation wherever and whenever we can. Technology consultants at my firm are telling clients to query their software, hardware and equipment vendors and find out how they’ll be incorporating conversational AI in future versions of their products. And then when these features are released, we advise small business owners to embrace them and use them to increase productivity and help control overhead.
Be cautious. Be ready. Be open to change. ChatGPT — and AI technology like it — will have a profound impact on the way we run our companies over the next decade.