Google’s Simon Balfe: ‘Machine learning is the next big shift for business’

1 Dec 2017

Simon Balfe, agency development manager, Google Marketing Solutions. Image: Luke Maxwell

Google’s Simon Balfe says we are now in a mobile-only world and at the dawn of the AI-first age of computing.

Simon Balfe is agency development manager at Google Marketing Solutions in Dublin.

We caught up with him at the recent Virgin Media Digital Evolution conference at the Titanic Belfast centre.

‘There is that kind of fear factor initially; they think it’s a massive problem that is only for really large organisations’

Summing up the digital age we are in, Balfe revealed that seven times more data is created daily today than in 2010.

“More people are searching on Google via mobile than desktop.”

He said that this is leading to a corresponding revolution in people expecting services immediately for instant gratification.

“There has been a 120pc increase in searches for same-day shipping since 2015 and a 300pc increase in searches related to ‘open now’. There has been a 150pc rise in travel-related searches for ‘tonight’ and ‘today’.”

Balfe also revealed that less than 50pc of EMEA businesses have sites optimised for mobile.

He cited Google co-founder and the CEO of Alphabet, Larry Page, who said: “We are no longer living in a mobile-first world, we are living in a mobile-only world.”

Balfe said that every 10 or so years, the tech world experiences massive paradigm shifts. In the 1990s it was web, in the 2000s it was mobile and, in this present decade, it is AI and machine learning.

“Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, recently said Google is now an AI-first company. AI and machine learning is enabling us to achieve 40pc savings on energy used for cooling in all of the Google data centres. We use machine learning to understand the weather outside and the temperatures inside, and know when to open and close the blinds.”

You said that less than 50pc of EMEA businesses have sites optimised for mobile. Do you believe this is a lost opportunity?

Yes, that’s true, and I’ve been with Google for five years now and we’ve been having that conversation all during that period. ‘This is the year of mobile’ – it became a running joke, when is the year?

In the last year, we’ve seen mobile queries surpass desktop for most industries, and that shows it is not at a point any more where you choose to ignore mobile. If they do, then they are going to struggle to compete and that’s a real challenge. And we have that access to information to be able to see that mobile has become more important based on searches and we can now see, based on the data that we have, that machine learning is the next big shift and we are trying to get that message across to people and help them along.

Not every business is Google, nor do they have the data science brains you guys have, but they are all good at something. How do they catch up? What should they be keeping front of mind when they think of AI?

There is that kind of fear factor initially; they think it’s a massive problem that is only for really large organisations.

But, in reality, it is about what does that company do that’s better than somebody else? What’s their key starting point? We can talk about simple examples around customer service emails being put together, organised and replied [to] in a quicker manner, or just using it in a way to free your time to allow yourself that time to do something better.

It will be small beginnings, but there are more and more companies offering services around cloud and enterprise and similar systems.

If you were to make a checklist of things for people to do to keep on top of the machine learning revolution, what would it consist of?

I think looking for examples in similar industries. There is always going to be an example of somebody who had done something in possibly a more advanced market, or just a more advanced competitor in a slightly different industry doing something interesting or addressing a similar challenge. I think it’s about looking for those examples and keeping close to that, and seeing how you can then apply that to your own business.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years