A frequent topic on this blog of late has been the multitude ways in which artificial intelligence will change our lives. Many in the popular media have focused on doomsday scenarios, from Stephen Hawking suggesting that “[t]he development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race” to Elon Musk saying that “[i]f I had to guess what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably [artificial intelligence].” However, we need to differentiate between “cyborgs running amok” scenarios to the focused use of AI technology to improve people’s lives. Nuance’s Charlie Ortiz spoke about this in his recent blog post: “It’s time to take off your tinfoil hats: AI is safe for human consumption.” Similarly, Bill Gates takes a more pragmatic view on the progression of AI moving from positive benefit to something to be more careful to manage: “First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that, though, the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern.” Others in the AI community seem to agree that machines will want to work for us rather than destroy us. Andrew Ng, who used to lead AI at Google and who is now chief scientist at Baidu, noted in January that “[t]he U.S. took 200 years to get from 98% to 2% farming employment…with this technology today, that transformation might happen much faster.”
On the flipside famed VC Marc Andreessen argues compellingly that while certain types of labor will be disrupted that we are a long way off from total automation and that a mix of human ingenuity mixed with artificial intelligence will have significant benefits for everyone. Clearly a lot of influential people are thinking deeply about the impact of AI, but what do we think? My colleague Greg Pal predicts that 2015 is the year that AI will enter the conversation for customer service. I agree with him and would go one step farther and say that not only will artificial intelligence be positive for companies and their representatives who will be able to do their jobs more effectively but end customers will also come to prefer intelligent self-service to the alternatives.
Consider this: when was the last time you decided to go into the bank to talk to a human instead of using the ATM, website or mobile app? Even if you go into the branch or call someone on the phone, does the person recognize you on sight or by the sound of your voice, know your name or anticipate why you’re there or how best to serve you? The truth of the matter is that there are just too many people on the planet nowadays for companies to offer us the kind of personal and easy experience that we all want.
That is why I find the idea of artificially intelligent virtual assistants doing some of these jobs so exciting. Somewhat paradoxically machines might be able to bring back a touch of humanity! Today, virtual assistants can already recognize you by the sound of your voice, and anticipate whether you’re calling to reschedule a flight or pay a bill, or what kind of pizza you like to order. In the future, they’ll be much more sophisticated and will be able to predict much more complex behaviors, such as when you’re going to take a trip and where you’d like to go, when you’re ready to upgrade your phone and what features you want, and will even be able to help you save more money by understanding your spending patterns and providing financial advice. They’ll utilize context to determine why you’re contacting them and deliver you information and perform actions on your behalf effortlessly and naturally because they’ll be guided by what you tell them is important to you. Self-service will improve; it will no longer mean being left on your own to do something that you used to be able to get help with. Instead, it will become a collaboration between you and an intelligent virtual assistant who will do all the mundane work of sifting through data, providing options and entering information while you supply creative input and make decisions. Moreover, even when you do talk to a live person, chances are they’ll be using an intelligent assistant to help them serve you better.
At Nuance, we’re so excited by this potential that nearly two years ago our CTO, Vlad Sejnoha, invested in a world-class AI group led by the esteemed Ron Kaplan (seriously, go check out his Wikipedia page—the guy is a legend). Recently, we also created an accelerator called the Cognitive Innovation Group to help bring AI inventions to market in partnership with our most innovative customers with whom we share this vision. A lot of us at Nuance feel as though we’ve been working our way up to this for a long time. In fact we think that, in the next five years, technical advances in natural language understanding and conversation systems, coupled with contact center big knowledge and learning, will allow us to build the first Enterprise AI that is preferred by customers over humans, all for one very simple reason: Enterprise AI will provide service that’s just as good as or better than a company’s very best customer service agent, whenever and wherever you want, and without having to wait. It’s an ambitious goal, but we’re confident because the contact center, where we do so much of our work, is actually some of the most fertile ground for making real advances in task specific artificial intelligence.
Simply put, by bringing A.I. to the contact center, Nuance will turn customer service into something people prefer – and love!