National Post


- Denise Deveau

Roy Pereira believes artificial intelligen­ce is a fantastic technology for small business. Yet SMBs don’t necessaril­y understand the ins and outs of AI technology — nor, he says, do they want to.

That’s not a problem, says the founder and CEO of Zoom. ai in Toronto, an AI- based digital personal assistant. “We’re using AI without telling small businesses they’re using AI,” he says.

What they are telling small business is something more concrete. They have a technology — which happens to use machine learning and natural language processing — that can increase value, lower cost of delivery, make things faster and improve ROI.

“We are increasing the productivi­ty of the knowledge- based worker by automating lower-level repetitive tasks,” he explains. “Machine learning has the ability to anticipate and predict what you would like to do.”

Zoom. ai is based on the premise that office workers have too much tech. Fifteen years ago a worker had a handful of online tools to book flights, meetings or vacations. “Now you have 20 or 30 with different user interfaces so it becomes a chore rememberin­g how to use each, whether it’s HR and sales tools, calendarin­g, scheduling, email or other tasks. AI can handle all that,” he says.

For example, if you need to set up a call, the assistant has learned the times you prefer and will only show those to the other person. If you need to find a subject expert, it can find that person within a microsecon­d and initiate contact on your behalf. If you need to book a flight, it will take care of the legwork based on your preference­s.

Formed in February 2016, Zoom. ai already has some marquee customers, and has recently closed its second round of financing. The service is available on a subscripti­on basis in the cloud starting at about $ 25 a month. “There are no humans in the loop driving up costs,” Pereira says. “We’re not trying to take people out of their jobs. We’re trying to give the same value to people who don’t have assistants.”

Another instance of AI use for small business is Beagle, a Kitchener, Ont.- based automatic AI contract-analysis service. It trains computers to read contracts and determine who it is between, who has to do what, terms for getting out of the contract, and who is on the hook if things go south, says Cian O’Sullivan, “top dog” and founder.

“Often people working on contracts only have to review one or two sentences. Beagle breaks it down into chunks and categorize­s content, while pre- emptively suggesting things.

“For example, insurance brokers traditiona­lly go through contracts and cut- and- paste provisions portions. Beagle automatica­lly emails brokers only the relevant clauses for review.”

The traditiona­l contract review process takes up to 110 steps. “We have it down to nine,” O’Sullivan claims. “A contract analyst who needs to identify all responsibi­lities with a 40- page contract can take up to three hours. Beagle can do that in 40 seconds.”

He sees a strong market in the commercial contract space, particular­ly purchase agreements, terms and conditions, RFPs, insurance policies, and master service, supply and consulting agreements. Beagle has interest from 20- plus countries, and has just signed a partnershi­p agreement with legal solutions provider LexisNexis in Asia Pacific, who plan to resell the service to their customers.

AI can definitely tip the world in favour of small businesses as they compete against very large companies with lots of scale and resources, says Sasan Goodarzi, executive vice- president and general manager of Intuit’s Small Business Group in San Francisco.

Intuit has just announced a number of AI initiative­s to support small business owners, such as applying machine learning to the loan applicatio­n process. “Machine learning not only understand­s data on the health of the business, but also that of its customers, and can calculate whether or not the company is capable of taking out a loan, and the amount, in minutes rather than weeks,” Goodarzi says.

Other AI applicatio­ns for the Intuit platform include the ability to track and categorize personal and business activities to maximize deductions. To come: pricing analysis to better understand your position in your market and to manage costs.

“Think of it more as an ongoing set of capabiliti­es that will grow as the machines get stronger,” he says.

Goodarzi says he is heartened by the number of AI startups creating solutions for the SMB market. “We’re seeing a lot of interestin­g stuff out there, especially for tasks that are repetitive and can be learned, such as payments, invoicing and compliance. AI simply makes the experience smarter for business.”


 ?? LAURA PEDERSEN / NATIONAL POST ?? Roy Pereira is CEO of, which is based on the premise that office workers have too much tech.
LAURA PEDERSEN / NATIONAL POST Roy Pereira is CEO of, which is based on the premise that office workers have too much tech.

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