In the early 2000s, accessing the internet was through a dial-up connection which could take anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes to establish a connection. In 2023, generative AI tools can generate poems, short stories and complex legal and medical documents in a matter of seconds.
The pace of technological change is accelerating and it’s reshaping just about every aspect of how we live, work, socialise and play. Interestingly, Xero’s Future Focus research reveals over two thirds (67%) of small businesses believe AI will have an impact on their business in the next five years. However, 35% of small businesses say they are not sure what impact AI will have on their business.
To help small businesses and their advisors plan ahead, I’ve looked at separating the hype from reality to uncover the top three technology trends that may impact the small business landscape in 2024.
Trend #1: The AI-augmented creativity boom
This year saw generative AI burst into the mainstream in what Axios’ Scott Rosenberg called the “most phenomenally successful act of rebranding in corporate history.” While language models are not new, the interactivity and accessibility of AI through tools like Stable Diffusion and ChatGPT signalled the biggest leap in the technology’s capabilities, helping businesses to create content easier and faster.
We’ve only scratched the surface of this technology and in 2024, while the hype might fade, more practical applications are likely to emerge relating to creative content, generative design and engineering. Currently, ChatGPT and other AI models are great at generating content from millions of examples of past works. But for creators or engineers looking for innovative solutions, you don’t want content that mimics an existing concept.
Next year we could well see a “creativity boom” where AI models go beyond statistical similarity and come up with new designs or products that are far better than the ones that exist today. Continuing in its ability to augment (rather than replace) human intelligence, AI could truly become the co-pilot for creators, enabling them to set up the requirements such as manufacturing processes, loads and constraints, and then filtering a myriad of new ideas and design options.
Prompt engineering and the ability to work effectively with these AI models will continue to grow in importance and as a skill-set across all industries. The drawbacks around misinformation, copyright and bias will also need to be worked through in 2024, as the push for the commercially safe, transparent and ethical use of these AI systems comes to a head in jurisdictions around the world.
Trend #2: The rise of the augmented, conversational UI
When I first started using ChatGPT, what struck me was the change in the interaction mode. The promise of conversational user interface has been around for a while with Siri and Alexa, but it’s always been functional and instructional, never truly conversational. ChatGPT is not a better search engine – especially when it hallucinates answers – but it is becoming one of the first real, usable and intelligible chatbots.
In 2024, large language model-powered tools like ChatGPT will continue to revolutionise human-computer interaction, through the rise of API-enabled, conversational (UI) chatbots that are able to interact with customers. The ability for chatbots to have real-time conversations in any language to customers 24/7 and perform certain tasks at their request will unlock new opportunities for small businesses looking to handle customer inquiries or expand into new markets.
Google and Microsoft will continue to enhance their generative AI-powered capabilities and, if you believe the rumours, Apple could release its generative AI technology on the iPhone and iPad in later 2024. The new features could improve how Siri and the Messages app can field questions and auto-complete sentences, mirroring recent changes to the AI-enhanced overhaul of Amazon’s Alexa.
Trend #3: Carbon accounting the next frontier for compliance
We’re well into the critical decade of climate action and pressure will begin to mount on governments and industries to reduce their carbon emissions to meet the IPCC’s 2030 deadline. At the same time, the release of the sustainability standards by the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) could see reporting on carbon emissions no longer be optional for businesses.
The ISSB standards could very well bring in a new era of compliance and become the basis of accounting standards in 2024. To avoid being locked out of corporate supply chains or providing inaccurate and misleading information on environmental or sustainability practices, small businesses will need to ensure they are accurately calculating and tracking their carbon emissions each year.
The integration of carbon accounting software into existing accounting platforms will see carbon accounting become an extension of financial accounting and reporting practices for small businesses. Our global partnership with Sumday is helping to democratise carbon accounting and upskill accountants and bookkeepers to provide this service. Xero small business customers can also find apps like Cogo, Ecologi and Greenly in the Xero App Store, allowing them to harness the data in their Xero ledger to measure and report their carbon emissions.
Small steps to an exciting future
While some of these tech trends might take years – or decades even – to realise the full scope of their impact on the world, the first steps into that future are being taken now. And next year, it would be a good idea for small businesses and their advisors to continue to keep an eye on developments in these five trends, as they will no doubt play a major role in shaping the future themselves.
James Bergin, Executive GM – Technology Strategy & Integration at Xero
James is a senior executive leader at Xero, with a background working in innovation and technology across a range of fintech, banking and retail organisations. He is responsible for defining the future state and strategic direction of technology at Xero, including the use of emerging technologies to solve customer problems. James is passionate about democratising access to digital solutions, and hosts Future Focus — a Xero series looking at the latest tech trends and what they mean for small businesses and their advisors around the world.