Friday, June 21, 2024

Albertine Press in Cambridge’s Inman Square is experimenting with AI. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Small businesses are at the forefront of the global artificial intelligence revolution, embracing AI not just as a tool but as a partner. In recent weeks, we at Cambridge Local First have explored the ways local businesses leverage AI, transforming everyday tasks into opportunities and reshaping the economic and social landscape of our city.

AI’s journey began in the mid-20th century, evolving from theoretical computer science to a suite of practical tools reshaping industries. Today, it encompasses machine learning, natural language processing and image generation, as seen in popular applications including OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Google’s Bard and Dall-E. These tools demonstrate a capacity for enhancing communication and sparking creativity. In Cambridge’s small-business sector, the versatility of AI is becoming increasingly clear. From bakeries employing it for efficient inventory forecasting to retail shops using chatbots to elevate customer service, AI is proving to be a pivotal tool for business growth and community engagement. Based on conversations we have had with business owners across Cambridge, applications within the small-business community include:

Content marketing Clay Fernald at The Middle East Nightclub uses AI to craft eye-catching headlines for events that he integrates into marketing. “I use AI as a starting or endpoint for our promotions and marketing projects, enhancing our workflow and bringing a fresh perspective,” Fernald said. At Albertine Press, Shelley Barandes uses AI to draft initial designs for unique greeting cards and to spark creativity. “While AI helps in generating initial ideas, the final touch always needs our personal editing to reflect our unique artistic voice,” she noted. A blend of computer and human creativity is becoming a model for many businesses, with technology enhancing rather than replacing the human touch.

Customer insights and engagement AI is revolutionizing the way small enterprises understand and connect with customers. Erika Salloux of Living Harmony uses it to analyze customer feedback, “tailoring my approach to those interested in our work” and enabling her to personalize her wellness workshops based on client interests, she said. Mark E. Harrington Jr. at Healthworks Fitness leverages AI for member engagement: Analyzing gym attendance data through AI helps identify members who might benefit from additional motivation or tailored fitness programs. “We use AI to track gym attendance and engage members who might need encouragement,” Harrington Jr. said. Understanding customer behavior and enhancing customer experience can lead to stronger and more meaningful business-client relationships.

Adopting the technology presents challenges. The journey is marked by concerns that encompass ethical dilemmas and practical obstacles. Barandes of Albertine Press points out a significant concern of creative fields: “When we use AI to generate initial artwork concepts, we often find that these pieces inadvertently mimic existing copyright-protected works, which poses a real issue for us as original content creators,” she said. Salloux of Living Harmony also faces challenges in AI material being “not only effective but also original, steering clear of any plagiarism.”

As AI is increasingly integrated into business, support and guidance from local and state governments becomes crucial. Andy Pyman of Breathe Cambridge pointed to the necessity of government-led educational initiatives, “A deep understanding of AI’s capabilities and limitations is essential. We rely on government programs for this kind of knowledge,” he said. Aelen Unan from Ninawa Zero Waste Clothes advocated for more resources too. “Workshops or seminars would be invaluable for us, helping to explore AI’s business potential while being mindful of ethical considerations,” she said.

Local business owners increasingly recognize that effective implementation needs robust support structures, extending well beyond basic tech solutions to strategic, government-led initiatives that ensure AI’s use is matched by a commitment to responsible and ethical application.

This essay was written in partnership with Cambridge Local First and the Resilient Local Economies internship program, where Mohammed Al-Tal is participating as a research intern.