AI and small business: a perfect match?
Right now, everyone in the tech world seems to have an opinion about generative/creative AI. People are buzzing about ChatGPT, a free (for now) artificial intelligence (AI) chat and text-creation program. And before that, the AI image generator Midjourney took (and is still taking) the Internet by storm. (I’m not talking about Loab because I still have nightmares…)
For the most part, tech blogs have quickly jumped on the (many) ethical concerns about using AI (such as whether or not the original content creators should be compensated), while simultaneously dismissing the AIs’ fumbling attempts to replicate human creations.
Yet just as quickly, ordinary people and small businesses have flocked to these platforms. So far, they’re finding all kinds of ways to use them as tools that save time in their businesses or help them grow as artists.
As Namecheap’s Undercover Geek, I explored the potential of these platforms to see how they are changing the very nature of creativity, and why business owners and freelancers should sit up and pay attention. Over the past couple of months, I’ve experimented with the technology, read discussions across the Internet, and talked to three visionaries at Namecheap who are already experimenting with AI in their professional and personal lives.
This is what I found out.
What is generative AI?
AI options such as ChatGPT and Midjourney are, at their core, programs that take verbal, plain language prompts and then — using natural language processing and machine learning — return a result that is an amalgamation of content scraped from the web, or that resides in a giant database. The AI interprets the prompt and reviews what it knows about everything requested, and generates new pieces of content in interesting and sometimes surprising ways.
For example, you could go to Midjourney (which uses a Discord server for prompt requests) and use the following prompt: “/imagine prompt robot eating a piece of cake while sitting on the beach at sunset.” After a few variations, you might end up with an image something like the one below:
Then you could ask ChatGPT to write you a little poem about this robot in the style of Byron, and get this in response:
Oh, what a sight upon the golden sands
A robot sits, a cake in hand
The sunset’s hues, so rich and grand
As he indulges, the sea at his command
The waves, they crash and then retreat
As he savors each morsel, oh so sweet
The sun sinks low, a sight to behold
As he eats his fill, his heart full, uncontrolled
The stars above, they dance and shine
As he finishes his feast divine
This memory, a joy to treasure
Forevermore, a pleasure beyond measure
As you can see, neither is perfect, nor would I classify them as “art” or “literature.” However, for a few seconds of computing time, they’re not bad, and probably better than most people could do in a couple of minutes or less. Indeed, the speed by which these AI systems create acceptable content is a bit unsettling.
And as I pointed out above, while they are fun to use, there are downsides to using this technology. These include the ease with which these programs can build deep fakes, the potential impact on creative jobs, and the problem of training these AI platforms using copyrighted source materials, among others. While we’re not going to focus on these issues here, it’s worth being aware of them. To learn more, check out our recent article, Why ChatGPT won’t replace humans any time soon.
How generative AI could help small businesses
You can read plenty of articles about the disruptive nature of AI. What if, instead, we think of AI as a way to “work smarter,” utilizing AI to help us improve what we already do?
After all, most small businesses and freelancers are either one-person shops or run with limited staff and resources. One person might wear a dozen hats.
Imagine if AI could reduce the costs of doing business, by making it easier to build websites, create marketing material, and so forth. That’s one way that Mustafa Al-mosawi, Head of Namecheap’s Concept Lab, envisions AI may be used in the near future.
With automation, he suggested AI could allow a small business owner to “focus on product and service” rather than get bogged down in administrative details. To make life easier, why not use an AI to write emails, draft your website’s “about me” page, or create ad copy within tight character parameters? What if you could use AI to shave precious time off your day by summarizing long articles or presentations and generating titles for blog posts? You could use Midjourney to design backgrounds for zoom calls or create graphics for social media. Or you could even use it to help illustrate a video game.
And chat programs like ChatGPT can also help small businesses with limited staff connect with their customers through online chat services, which can be especially helpful in handling routine, repetitive questions like business hours, locations, and services.
Nicola Ballotta, Director of Cloud at Namecheap, pointed out that AI could automate more and more of our routine tasks, making it “easier to make decisions based on data.” To demonstrate AI’s potential, Ballotta built No Humans Write, a blog that uses a simple Python script (which is available on GitHub) to generate content with ChatGPT.
While we don’t advocate you fill your own blog with AI-generated content, it’s interesting to see how much is possible. Then there’s developer Sanskar Tiwari’s SheetAI, a Google Sheets addon, you can integrate your spreadsheets and AI processing, automating data analysis or even creating individualized emails.
Translation is another potential goldmine. Ballotta explained that a lack of localized websites presents “a big blocker for small businesses,” especially in non-English-speaking countries such as Italy, where he lives. In addition to websites, AI could provide automatic translation within apps, PDFs, presentations, and even videos.
Again, it’s not going to generate perfect code (and it even provides a caveat), but it’s a start. And as Guedes explained, “we are going to start to see widespread use of AI for coding. It is a logical and straightforward application of AI, and easy to start small and build from it.”
Using generative AI to write computer code could make it easier to build a website, with contextual clues and interactive help screens. It could expand the ability of businesses to build bespoke software without huge budgets, and improve the process for updating existing software — all of which would be music to small business owners’ ears.
What all of these examples demonstrate is that with a little time and ingenuity, there are lots of potential ways you could use these AI options to help you run your business.
Will AI replace freelancers and creatives?
Many freelance writers, web developers, and graphic designers are wary of the explosion of AI-generated content. Should they be worried about AI taking their jobs?
I’ll admit that I can’t help but ponder this existential question. Some of my colleagues are intrigued, while others fear that the end of freelance writing gigs is close at hand. The same split exists among visual artists — some are pushing the limits of the technology while others adamantly refuse to call what an AI generates “art,” and fear that they will soon be replaced by robots.
So that got me wondering: can freelancers themselves benefit from the rise of AI-generated content? As I dug into this question, I found many examples of creative professionals already benefiting from AI platforms.
For artwork, Dall-E and Midjourney can generate some spectacular images, but they also introduce a lot of errors and randomness, such as an image of a person with eight fingers on each hand.
But for all its flaws, these are all minor problems in the hands of a pro. A skilled visual artist or graphic designer might use an AI image as inspiration or as a base image for their own work, such as a sketch or a 3-D model. Or they could also utilize what comes out of the AI generator as a basic design and modify it within Photoshop or art media. In this way, they can take what might feel like a generic image and make it truly remarkable and original, just as a photographer or painter can capture the image of a familiar landmark and turn it into something astounding and unexpected. They can also use AI to quickly generate secondary images for a design like a book cover, such as backgrounds or scrollwork, or model different mood boards and designs for a client’s consideration.
Like AI images, AI text output is also problematic. Most AI-generated text comes across as flat and uninventive, and generally can’t be used as-is. For example, when Gizmodo’s staff tried to get ChatGPT to write an article in their style, they were not impressed.
But every writer benefits from having research summarized or tweaking text to fit a certain word count. Having a tool to use for brainstorming, outlining, summarizing, and even generating basic text can help a writer cut down on the busy work and focus on the more creative and difficult aspects of writing.
AI: friend or foe?
It’s impossible to know exactly how generative AI will impact society, affect small businesses, or change the nature of the human creative output. But we can decide right now whether to fear or embrace it.
After talking to experts, reading analyses from smart people across the Internet, and playing with the tools myself, I’ve come to believe that AI has so much potential for good in our lives. Rather than fear it, people have to adapt and change with the times. So while the nature of content creation will change, it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game where all artists and authors are replaced by AI.
Instead, as Ballotta suggested, rather than writers or artists being replaced, they may need to learn a new skill so that we can coexist with AIs. As he put it, “I think that the day is coming very soon where ‘must be proficient in writing AI prompts’ will be a requirement for people to get hired as creatives.”
And this is where smart small business owners may have the edge. By embracing these programs now and finding ways to benefit from them, future-focused business owners and freelancers will be a step ahead of their competition. Early adopters of this new technology stand to gain significantly over those that come later, both by implementing the tech within their own business to save time and money, as well as potentially pivoting to embrace AI as part of their business models.