A virtual assistant is an app that comprehends natural, ordinary language voice commands and carries out tasks for the users. Well-known virtual assistants include Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana. Also, virtual assistants are generally cloud-based programs so they need internet-connected devices and/or applications in order to work. Virtual assistants can perform tasks like adding calendar appointments, controlling and checking the status of a smart home, sending text messages, and getting directions.
The market shapes customer behavior. Gartner predicts that “40% of mobile interactions will be managed by smart agents by 2020.” Every single business out there today either has a chatbot already or is considering one. 30% of customers expect to see a live chat option on your website. Three out of 10 consumers would give up phone calls to use messaging. As more and more customers begin expecting your company to have a direct way to contact you, it makes sense to have a touch point on a messenger.
It won’t be an easy march though once we get to the nitty-gritty details. For example, I heard through the grapevine that when Starbucks looked at the voice data they collected from customer orders, they found that there are a few millions unique ways to order. (For those in the field, I’m talking about unique user utterances.) This is to be expected given the wild combinations of latte vs mocha, dairy vs soy, grande vs trenta, extra-hot vs iced, room vs no-room, for here vs to-go, snack variety, spoken accent diversity, etc. The AI practitioner will soon curse all these dimensions before taking a deep learning breath and getting to work. I feel though that given practically unlimited data, deep learning is now good enough to overcome this problem, and it is only a matter of couple of years until we see these TODA solutions deployed. One technique to watch is Generative Adversarial Nets (GAN). Roughly speaking, GAN engages itself in an iterative game of counterfeiting real stuffs, getting caught by the police neural network, improving counterfeiting skill, and rinse-and-repeating until it can pass as your Starbucks’ order-taking person, given enough data and iterations.
As artificial intelligence continues to evolve (it’s predicted that AI could double economic growth rates by 2035), conversational bots are becoming a powerful tool for businesses worldwide. By 2020, it’s predicted that 85% of customers’ relationship with businesses will be handled without engaging a human at all. Businesses are even abandoning their mobile apps to adopt conversational bots.
In 2000 a chatbot built using this approach was in the news for passing the “Turing test”, built by John Denning and colleagues. It was built to emulate the replies of a 13 year old boy from Ukraine (broken English and all). I met with John in 2015 and he made no false pretenses about the internal workings of this automaton. It may have been “brute force” but it proved a point: parts of a conversation can be made to appear “natural” using a sufficiently large definition of patterns. It proved Alan Turing’s assertion, that this question of a machine fooling humans was “meaningless”.
You may remember Facebook’s big chatbot push in 2016 – when they announced that they were opening up the Messenger platform to chatbots of all varieties. Every organization suddenly needed to get their hands on the technology. The idea of having conversational chatbot technology was enthralling, but behind all the glitz, glamour and tech sex appeal, was something a little bit less exciting. To quote Gizmodo writer, Darren Orf:
If AI struggles with fourth-grade science question answering, should AI be expected to hold an adult-level, open-ended chit-chat about politics, entertainment, and weather? It is thus encouraging to see that Microsoft’s Satya Nadella did not give up on Tay after its debacle, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is sponsoring an Alexa social chatbot competition. I love this below quote from Jeff:
The term "ChatterBot" was originally coined by Michael Mauldin (creator of the first Verbot, Julia) in 1994 to describe these conversational programs. Today, most chatbots are accessed via virtual assistants such as Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, via messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger or WeChat, or via individual organizations' apps and websites. Chatbots can be classified into usage categories such as conversational commerce (e-commerce via chat), analytics, communication, customer support, design, developer tools, education, entertainment, finance, food, games, health, HR, marketing, news, personal, productivity, shopping, social, sports, travel and utilities.