Sometimes changes in technology arrive amid such fanfare it’s hard to miss them. Smartphones that turned personal computing on its head. The jet engine that shrank the world and opened travel for everyone. Global positioning systems that made it easy to do everything from tracking a hurricane to delivering a pizza. The impact, even if it unfolded over a decade or more, was visible, explosive and undeniable. They arrived, we changed, and no one was surprised. 

Yet perhaps the most dramatic technology change since humans first learned to smelt metal and turn useless rocks into transformation tools has, despite all the talk and hype, already arrived. And it’s easy to miss—just like the silicon chip, hidden away in all those other technologies but powering transformative change. Artificial intelligence (AI) has been talked up for so long it would be easy to imagine it was no more than hype and scaremongering.

But make no mistake, AI is here and it’s changing our entire economy right under our noses.

No longer just for big organizations

While governments and big businesses have been using expensive and complex AI tools for a while now, it is the advent of AI in the world of small and medium businesses (SMB)that is rewriting the rules of commerce. Highly focused AI tools, built and optimized to solve specific sets of business challenges are available to everyone, delivered through the ubiquitous cloud and accessed through smartphones in the pocket of everyone from the CEO to the customer service rep.

Small businesses are using AI to solve a slew of problems that were, until recently, simply too complex to manage, too expensive to address or required highly skilled and scarce data-scientist expertise.

From how to price a carton of paper cups to what training your engineers will need to meet the challenges of your expanding business, AI is attacking all manner of business planning and operational problems, crunching data, and offering up insights, advice, and the ability to respond faster to changes than ever before. And, guess what, no one really cares how it’s being done—only that it’s making their lives easier.

At their heart—AI today is being used to address two sets of challenges.

The first are essentially operational tasks. How to run the business better, for example.  These include tools to analyze everything from pricing and sales strategy, through to optimizing which vendors to buy from. AI technologies watch the ebb and flow of business and determine what levels of stock to hold for particular items. They are even increasingly used for the ‘softer’ aspects of management, such as deciding how to make sure your key employees are happy and even which employees might be likely to leave your business if they’re not. Such tools can be invaluable in maximizing revenue even for an SMB where a tiny change in pricing can deliver huge growth in profitability – yet too often managers are unable to make the critical, data-based choices to tune their pricing and packaging. Likewise identifying, through a slew of metrics gathered over time, which key employees might be unhappy or at risk and therefore make changes to people strategies, can be life or death to a small business.

In all these cases, the AI tools aren’t making the decisions themselves, but rather offering up insights based on evaluating historical data, gathering behavioral data and making forward-looking projects, so that managers are better informed and understand the likely implications of choices. 

The second set of tools are focused on how businesses interact with the outside world – especially their customers.

These range from traditional website chat bots that offer recommendations or answer simple questions to tools that record and analyze sales calls to determine how to improve customer interactions. AI is also used heavily to help deliver overall better customer service, analyzing everything from optimal routes to keep your pizza delivery on time to how long a buyer looks at a product before adding it to their shopping cart. Even the simple process of walking around a grocery store might be the subject of AI interest as machine learning tools look for ways to get the right product in front of a buyer at just the right time to get a sale.

The ‘secret sauce’

In the end, what’s happening is that AI is becoming the secret sauce in almost every aspect of business, from major enterprises to small businesses. The really transformative aspect is how available these tools now are for even very small businesses to use, embedded in cloud services and available from smartphones or tablets. And, like that global positioning system, today’s employers and employees care less about what’s inside and more about how it makes their lives easier.

The AI revolution hasn’t been one of sudden, glorious revelations with all-knowing intelligent machines suddenly emerging on the landscape. Nor has it been one in which AI has started throwing ordinary working people out on the street, as many had predicted. Rather, the role of AI in small businesses has been more subtle, more pervasive and more beneficial.

AI for the SMB has freed business owners, managers and regular employees to focus on other, more human aspects of their job by offering up suggestions, improvements and guidance. Free to make better choices in how businesses are run and armed with insight on how to offer better service to their customers, leaders in the SMB world can now focus on what we humans do best of all – being creative, empathic and very, very human.

And that’s something to be thankful for.

Geoff Webb is VP for solutions, product, and marketing strategy at isolved, a human capital management (HCM) system for small-to-midsize companies,