Is AI a great tool to help businesses and workers – or is it a threat to them – in the ‘new normal’ pandemic landscape?

Even as the world slowly emerges from pandemic-induced lockdowns and work-from-home policies, AI will be deployed on a larger scale as businesses pivot to overcome disruptions brought on by the pandemic.

In fact, iKala’s data shows that cloud consumption has risen by 20% among businesses to support this purpose. AI has also been deployed in the fight against COVID-19 by automating processes to limit human interactions.

In this interview with Sega Cheng, Co-Founder and CEO of iKala, DigiconAsia finds out how businesses can effectively harness the power of AI during the COVID-19 pandemic business landsape and beyond.

How can AI help businesses emerge from a pandemic like COVID-19?

Cheng: As businesses in South-east Asia prepare for a ‘new normal’ emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will play a crucial role in helping them get ready for the future of work.

This is particularly true for the retail sector, which is experiencing a rapid shift online amidst the closure of traditional brick-and-mortar due to COVID-19. These businesses are tapping onto new channels like social selling in response to consumers’ evolving needs and behaviors.

Beyond this, the adoption of AI solutions will help businesses better process consumer data and understand preferences to provide the right products, services and content.

Please provide an example in the retail sector in South-east Asia during COVID-19.

Cheng: Thailand is a leader in the region for ‘live’ sales and saw a 216% jump in live social sales on Facebook when physical retail establishments closed down in February 2020 – a trend that’s likely to continue as Southeast Asia emerges from the pandemic.

In the last few months, iKala also recorded a 5x increase in the number of online sellers using its social e-commerce selling service Shoplus, which automates sales processes such as order management, payment, invoicing and delivery, allowing sellers to focus on engaging their customers and driving sales.

An example of this is Hshgold – a Thai retail company which started using iKala’s Shoplus platform in November 2019. Being an early adopter of AI-powered live selling prepared Hshgold for a sudden influx of customers as they shifted online during the pandemic. As compared to brands who embraced this technology at a much later stage, Hshgold was able to reap early benefits with an order increase of 261% between March and April 2020, placing them in a stronger position to take on the current economic climate.

It’s often raised, as a major objection to AI, that what we need more in business is the human touch. In your opinion, how should this issue be addressed?

Cheng: At its core, the purpose of AI is to simplify human life. It should be built in ways that allow humans to make better decisions and lead richer lives – and this is something businesses need to bear in mind. iKala’s mission is to “enable AI competencies” and has always placed a greater emphasis on maintaining and championing the human touch in our AI technology.

We believe that technological advancements must not only raise productivity and GDP growth but also help people solve problems and broadly improve well-being.

An example of this is iKala’s Picaas (picture-as-a-service) technology which automatically edits pictures, removing the background and unnecessary overlays to optimize images for Google Shopping Ads. Doing this addresses image violation issues by adapting the software to recognize and reject copyrighted images. Leveraging technology for this time and effort consuming task allows people to focus on creative and strategic aspects of the business instead, thus optimizing their use of time.

We also believe the true purpose of AI technology is labor-enabling rather than labor-replacing. For example, iKala’s Shoplus uses AI technologies and multiple-automatic features for social sellers to sell more products in less time and reduce friction on Facebook.

What are some key ethical concerns surrounding AI, and what are some best practices and guidelines businesses would do well to observe?

Cheng: Some of the key ethical concerns surrounding the adoption of AI include the potential loss of jobs to automation, data privacy and concerns around it’s a responsible application in medicine, law enforcement and other key areas of society. In order to address this, businesses need to go beyond regulatory acceptance, consumer perception, and corporate reputation in their AI adoption and work towards aligning their goals with broader societal interests and progress.

Recently, there was a wave of criticism around an app using AI to ‘undress’ women – an abominable use of the technology that makes it even more important to ensure that we harness the power of AI in a responsible way. Technology leaders such as Google and data consultancy firm PwC have developed a set of rules and guidelines for developers of innovative applications, and at iKala we strongly reinforce these standards in our research and products as well.

What role should developers play as catalysts to the successful deployment of AI in business?

Cheng: Businesses need to have a strong digital foundation before they can completely adopt AI solutions, and the developer’s role is to help them create and follow a clear roadmap for digital transformation.

A first necessary step is for developers to understand businesses’ goals, and then work backwards to customize solutions that can help achieve those goals and better prepare for the future.

For example, iKala uses a framework called the DAA (Digitalization, Analytics, Application) flywheel, to guide clients through the digital literacy process, and determine to what extent iKala can truly support them on their transformation journey.