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Every so often there’s a paradigm shift in information technology. Think of the transition from the command line to graphical user interfaces, the advent of client/server computing, the development of web-based apps and more recently the mobile explosion and cloud computing. Each has had a big impact on business operations and productivity and now we’re at the start of another major transition, quite possibly the biggest yet, with the development of intelligent apps. This has significant implications for business in China.

Just what are intelligent apps? Applications supported by artificial intelligence (AI) and more specifically, machine learning. Perhaps this doesn’t sound so new, given that the AI concept has been bandied about for decades (think of all that science fiction). Alan Turing, the pioneering computer scientist, developed his well-known test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior in 1950 and since then there’s been a great deal of research into the subject. Back in the 1980s there was, for a time, a lot of excitement and some applications of expert systems before things fizzled out.

Inducing knowledge

So what’s changed? In the last 10 years, and particularly in the last five, advanced statistical techniques (loosely known as deep learning), access to large amounts of data and ever-increasing processing power have enabled machine learning to take big steps forward. This is crucial because unlike expert systems, which take a lot of programming to embed knowledge, machine learning doesn’t require much code at all. The system “induces” knowledge from data and gets better the more it is used – i.e. it really does learn – and these day machine learning is well capable of matching, if not exceeding, the typical human level of 95 percent accuracy.

This step change in machine learning has already manifesting itself in daily lives with the voice recognition systems underlying the Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa all benefitting from significant improvements in performance and accuracy. Intelligent apps for enterprise have been a little slower in coming but this is starting to change, rapidly. And your company doesn’t need to be the size of an Apple or Amazon to get on to the intelligent apps bandwagon – the key requirement is to have access to lots of data.

Intelligent enterprise

We’ve been working on the application of machine learning to business for a while now, based on the SAP HANA Cloud Platform, and since making the capabilities available through the SAP Innovation Center Network at the end of last year there’s been tremendous progress. In May we were able to announce the first wave of five intelligent apps and the next wave, co-innovated with customers, is already making its way down the release pipeline.

The reason why we’ve been able to make such quick progress is that developing the apps doesn’t really take that much coding as the machine learning intelligence already resides in the back-end. These apps have been likened to a microscope, allowing data to be viewed differently and the trick is to think things through so that what is being seen is relevant to the business.

While the first wave of intelligent apps deliver their impact in completely different areas, from being in the customer’s face to being highly internal, they share the common attribute of eliminating the human drudgery of assimilating, organizing and rationally analyzing large amounts data.

Less time and cost

The benefits accrue by reducing both the time and cost of a business process. In the recruitment, for example, 60 percent of the time is typically spent on shortlisting candidates for the job based on their CVs. By injecting intelligence powered by machine learning into the process, recruiters are free to focus on the higher-value, qualitative aspects of the process that come from meeting candidates. It is not difficult to see how intelligent apps are going to be of huge benefit to corporate shared service centers – charged with executing repetitive tasks that are nonetheless business-critical – as cost-effectively as possible.

For enterprises in China that the advent of intelligent apps presents a golden opportunity inject a much needed boost in productivity into their operations, which on average lag their peers in OECD countries. According to a recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute shifting to a productivity-led growth model could generate US$5.6 trillion of additional GDP by 2030 and increase household income by US$5.1 billion1.

Ultimately intelligent apps can be seen as changing the way we consume data, enabling us transform it far more easily into business value. Deployed in the enterprise, they have strong potential to help generate more revenue, reduce cost, increase customer satisfaction and make employees happier on the job.

That’s a big agenda to deliver on but I’m confident that this paradigm shift is not going to disappoint.