New development center will connect Alaska businesses with AI tools

A man smiling with glasses
Jon Bittner is the Director of the Alaska Small Business Development Center in Anchorage. (Courtesy Jon Bittner)

Artificial Intelligence or AI technology is advancing faster than most people can keep up. That includes small business owners in Alaska. The Alaska Small Business Development Center has a new resource center aimed at familiarizing businesses with AI tools. 

Jon Bittner is the director of the new center. 

Ava White: Jon, what prompted you to start this center?

Jon Bittner: A lot of things. Artificial intelligence technology has been around for a while, but recent changes in its accessibility really meant that it was being implemented by a lot of different people really rapidly. We had several people on our staff that were very interested in trying to explore some of those opportunities and we decided to run with it.

AW: What do you see as the potential for AI use for small businesses in Alaska?

JB: It’s helpful for people to contextualize this as something similar to the creation of the personal computer or the home printer or cellular technology. It doesn’t solve any one simple problem. It solves a host of problems. So you can use it for marketing, you can use it for business development, you can use it for data, generating new images and things like it really is pretty ubiquitous at this point.

AW: What kind of challenges do Alaskan small businesses face specifically that you think AI technology can help with?

JB: Absolutely. I’ve been doing business and economic development in Alaska for a long time. What you realize pretty quickly is that a lot of the barriers to business have been around for even longer, decades. It’s a lack of workforce, high operating cost, lack of access to technical skill sets, things like that, particularly in rural communities. I think AI has the potential to help with all of these. You can really up your efficiency, you can get access to certain levels of technology and professional services that you couldn’t get otherwise. I think it’s going to be a real game changer, honestly. The big thing is how you interact with it, you don’t need to be a coder, you can just talk to it, like we’re talking right now. And you can generate really advanced responses.

AW: What do you think small businesses need to be thinking about in terms of balancing the use of AI while maintaining human interaction with customers?  

JB: I think that it’s good to look at AI as sort of a supplement to what you do. I wouldn’t recommend just letting AI handle all your customer interactions, I don’t think that’s a good idea. But it can help when you’re dealing with customers on the front end, it can help drive them to the right place. You can embed AI driven bots on your website to make sure that they’re not wasting a lot of time and insights that they don’t need. It can help you develop better management for your social media platforms and your outreach and your marketing, identifying who your market is. As technology is changing so fast, I think it’s really important to just try and be open to understanding what’s happening there and being ready to take advantage of it when something comes along that you can use.

AW: The state has seen a drop in the working-aged population and it’s expected to continue declining through 2030. You touched on it a little bit, but can you talk more about how the AI resource center might help businesses deal with the employee shortage?

JB: I think that one of the easiest ways that it’s going to address that is through greater efficiency. We use it a lot in our own offices for helping to generate emails, helping to generate online content, we let it write one of our newsletters one month, that was a lot of fun. Really, where we’re seeing the most implementation is in letting AI do the things that none of us have ever liked to do, the repetitive grindy time consuming tasks so that we can focus on the things that we do like to do, figuring out the broader picture, actually implementing things that come out launching businesses, deploying capital, as opposed to writing endless proposals or writing, all sorts of things that just take a lot of time. And nobody really reads anymore. It’s like the terms and conditions on new software. I mean, somebody had to write that, but maybe three people on the planet ever read it.

AW: AI can be intimidating. What’s your pitch to small business owners in terms of overcoming any fears they might have?

JB: Our recommendation is to start small. The good news is, there are no special skills required here. I mean, you can train yourself to get better results, but anybody can jump into numerous AI platforms that are free. The more you use it, I think, the more you’ll realize, ‘oh, this isn’t a scary technology, but it is a technology that is going to deeply impact a lot of aspects of our lives.’ 

Advisors are free, and can help entrepreneurs with financial planning, feasibility studies and marketing. 

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