What Does Cognitive Computing Mean for Virtual Agents?

Watson2Forbes recently published an article on IBM Watson and the intent to use Watson’s cognitive computing abilities to provide customer help desk services. In a previous post, I wrote about the technology behind DeepQA, which is the question answering framework used to power IBM Watson. The DeepQA technology seems like it could be a game changer for the virtual agent landscape.

How does cognitive computing push the envelope? DeepQA / IBM Watson is not constrained by the limited amounts of information that most current virtual agents have access to. This is an evolutionary process. Chatbots have been far outstripped by intelligent virtual agent technologies over the past decade. Chatbots are simple pattern matching devices that can only respond to a question that has already been programmed into their database. Virtual agents don’t have to be primed with all the questions in advance. They have the benefit of speech and/or language recognition, natural language processing, and search. They can understand a person’s intent and search a limited database or set of website content to find an answer, primarily based on keyword matching.

Cognitive computers like DeepQA go even further. Such question answering systems can be primed with almost unimaginable amounts of information. IBM Watson can be given access to every bit of internal product and company documentation, as well as online review sites, analysts articles, and on and on.  This is far more information than a traditional virtual agent, or even a human, could consume and process. Relying on its massively parallel probabilistic evidence-based architecture, IBM Watson can very quickly find possible answers to almost any question, determine which answers are most likely to be correct, and offer a response.

What do these newly emerging question answering technologies mean for the future of customer service virtual agents, personal digital assistants, and web self service as a whole? It remains to be seen how products such as an Ask Watson will perform in the real world. It’s also not clear if Ask Watson will be cost competitive when compared with more traditional solutions.

How the virtual agent landscape develops will depend not only on emerging technologies, but on what consumers expect from the systems they interact with. We’ll be keeping an eye on developments.

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