Humans, AI and the Man Behind the Curtain

February 23, 2017

This article was contributed by Carl Jeanbart, practice scientist for Zilliant EMEA. Carl leads scientists and data architects in the design, development and execution of Zilliant’s EMEA pricing solutions.

Good news: The machines still need us mere mortals.

Recently, Harvard Business Review (HBR) posted a thought-provoking article on artificial intelligence (AI), “Humans Beyond the AI Curtain.” The article follows Kala, a mother who lives in Bangalore, India and works behind the scenes cleaning up AI-generated content online. The message, at a high level, is that many artificial-intelligence-powered solutions actually have humans in the background, constantly tweaking and refining.

While the cases presented by HBR focused more on cleaning up off-color content on sites like YouTube and Facebook, algorithms also depend on humans in a business context as well.

How AI Works in B2B

In B2B, humans don’t just clean up the output. In-house experts can work in tandem with AI solutions to refine the model, making sure it’s aligned with the business’ unique needs. For example, testing how thousands of discrete customer segments will respond to price changes and visualizing the results before prices are changed in-market. Or, prioritizing the types of opportunities sent to sales reps based on current promotions.

Once the pricing or sales guidance is in-market, the sales person is in the driver seat. Equipped with market-aligned pricing and sales guidance that empowers them to know every customer as well as the very best customer, sales reps have the autonomy to price and sell within a range of items that the algorithms (with the input of an expert in the business) have determined are most likely to result in a win.

So, that’s the good news. Not only is expert input a critical factor in any AI-generated guidance, it can be an influencing one as well. But don’t expect AI to be fully in the driver seat soon.

AI in B2B: It’s Symbiotic

Consider this quote from the author of the HBR article:

"The truth is, AI is as ‘fully-automated’ as the Great and Powerful Oz was in that famous scene from the classic film, where Dorothy and friends realize that the great wizard is simply a man manically pulling levers from behind a curtain. This blend of AI and humans, who follow through when the AI falls short, isn’t going away anytime soon."

On this point, I respectfully disagree. It seems to imply that AI is controlled by humans, or that there’s a clear hierarchy in the relationship with humans above the AI. I don’t think that’s the case, in practice it’s a much more symbiotic relationship.

When AI powers pricing, for example, the model and human contribute equally to the benefits of the solution. AI needs you, the expert, to understand the business context, to validate the prices and to be an extra level of control to the recommendations. However, the human expert also needs the AI to reach smarter conclusions, and do it at scale. For example, setting prices for perhaps millions of possible customer/product combinations based on a few years of transactional data, yet weighing in complex dynamics like regional areas, competitor data, volatile cost changes, product premiums, and much more. It’s a massive task that BI reports can’t achieve.

When it comes to AI, there’s no need to have a man behind the curtain. The best, smartest AI applications will take an approach that pairs man and machine instead of pitting them against one another. 

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