New Report on Global Intelligent Virtual Assistant Market 2014-2018

TechNavio and/or Sandler Research recently published a new report entitled “Global Intelligent Virtual Assistant Market 2014-2018.” The report is available from both TechNavio and Sandler Research and I’m unclear on the relationship between the two organizations.

TechNavio's IVA global market report shows the percentage of the market across the 3 major regions

TechNavio’s IVA global market report shows the percentage of the market across the 3 major regions

The report is very optimistic in terms of the expected growth rate of the burgeoning IVA industry, predicting a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 39.32 percent over the period 2013-2018.

The synopsis of the report indicates that it differentiates between three key regional markets: Americas, EMEA, and APAC. It also examines the IVA market within four major market segments, which they call Banking and Financial Sector, Education Sector, Travel Sector, and Retail Sector.

The summary published by TechNavio lets the cat out of the bag in terms of the top-rated intelligent virtual assistant vendors. Top ranking goes to Creative Virtual Ltd., eGain Corp., IntelliResponse, NextIT Corp. and Nuance. These top companies appear to be listed in alphabetical order.

The report also lists other IVA vendors that made the list of prominent companies. There are some notable omissions from this secondary list. One omission is Artificial Solutions, which not only offers virtual assistant technology, but which recently announced a network for connecting specialized virtual assistants with other assistants, which they call the Teneo Network of Knowledge. Also missing from the list of vendors is Expertmaker. Both Artificial Solutions and Expertmaker made the list of IVA vendors in the recent Enterprise Intelligent Assistant report by Opus Research.

Smaller, independent chatbot platform providers such as BOT libre! and Second Ego don’t make the list either, which is probably not surprising given their recent appearance in the marketplace and the fact that they have low market penetration at this point.

The report examines the demand for cloud-based intelligent virtual assistants versus for on premises solutions. It also provides potential buyers of IVA services with market buying criteria. A large portion of the report is focused on a detailed analysis of each of the five top-ranked IVA companies, including in-depth looks at the business and a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis.

Though I don’t have access to the full report, there are a few takeaways from just reading the summary:

  • Firstly, it seems that the word “assistant” is becoming more entrenched, displacing the use of the word “agent” to describe conversational user interfaces that offer personal assistance to customers or individual users. This continues the confusion between human “virtual assistants” offering administrative business services out of their home offices versus “virtual assistants” that are conversational software programs. I suppose that’s just something we’ll have to live with.
  • Secondly, although the top-ranked IVA vendors service most of the customers employing the technology, the marketplace is still diffuse and competitive. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s a consolidation in vendors over the coming few years as the IVA market expands.

The report can be purchased directly from either Sandler Research or TechNavio. A single user license to the report is listed at $2500.

 

Should the EFF Be Concerned About The Government’s Use of Virtual Agents?

Sgt. STARThe Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has been interested in learning more about how U.S. government agencies use virtual agents. Most recently, the EFF has looked into how the military uses virtual agents in their recruiting and public-facing information delivery efforts. Dave Maass of the EFF posted an update on the EFF-led investigations into the Army’s Sgt. STAR chatbot, which has been available on the GoArmy.com website since August, 2006. The EFF received information from the Department of the Army after issuing a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The FOIA request asked for all of Sgt. STAR’s possible answers to potential questions, as well as usage data and other information. Maass links to all of the documents, including the full database of output scripts, in the above-mentioned article.

On behalf of EFF, Maass expresses several concerns about Sgt. STAR’s use and operations. Those concerns can categorized as follows:

  • Multithreading:  The Sgt. STAR virtual agent can engage in many simultaneous conversations and thus converse with far more people than a human could.
  • Privacy concerns: All of Sgt. STAR’s conversations are logged and humans have access to everything that was communicated to the virtual agent, even if people talking to Sgt. STAR are under the impression that their conversations are confidential.
  • Risk of manipulation of those conversing with the virtual agent: Research shows that people have lowered inhibitions when communicating with a virtual agent, as opposed to when speaking with a human, and they are therefore more likely to divulge personal, confidence, or incriminating information to the chatbot.
  • Potential threat to one’s civil liberties: The same technology that runs Sgt. STAR has been used in virtual agents that the FBI and CIA have used to detect suspected pedophiles and terrorists.

It’s worth dissecting the EFF’s concerns. The first three concerns listed above are broadly applicable to all virtual agent and virtual assistant technologies deployed today in both the public and private sectors. The last issue is most likely isolated to a virtual agent being operated by the government.

On the multithreading point, it’s no surprise that virtual agents are capable of having simultaneous conversations with many people. A virtual agent is a software-based system and, as long as the supporting infrastructure is adequately scalable, the agent can be instantiated over and over again every time a new user shows up to talk. This very ability to multi-thread itself is a big selling point to businesses that want to ensure they can scale to meet customer demand, without having to staff their call center with hundreds of human call agents that may or may not receive a call on a specific date and time.

When it comes to privacy, the truth is that all communication with chatbots can and usually is tracked and then analyzed afterwards. The ability to capture what humans are asking and how they are responding to their virtual agent dialogue partners is, in fact, a key benefit of virtual agent technology for the businesses and organizations that use it. Businesses gain intelligence through understanding the voice of the customer, and some virtual agent companies differentiate themselves by offering intelligence products that analyze conversational data and highlight actionable trends. Whether or not this is considering ‘spying’ on people is probably a matter of perspective. The fact that no chatbot conversations are private is an undeniable fact and one that the industry still hasn’t fully addressed.

Conversations with mobile personal assistants are just as easily tracked and monitored as those with web-based customer service avatars. The revelation last year that Apple stores user conversations with Siri, including a person’s recorded voice, was disconcerting to many. A mitigating factor in that this electronic eavesdropping does not store personally identifiable information–or at least it shouldn’t. Whether or not virtual assistant / virtual agent operators adhere to this policy is currently a matter of self-policing. It would be preferable if industry would establish clear guidelines, pledge to follow them, and provide periodic proof that they are adhering to the privacy policies.

The manipulation concern is one that I find both intriguing and problematic. Studies do seem to indicate that people are more open with virtual agents than they are with other humans. One data point here comes from research by Janneke van der Zwaan that I wrote about a few months ago. Van der Zwaan found that children felt more comfortable telling a cartoon-like chatbot about there experiences and feelings as a victim of bullying than they did speaking with their parents or other adults about the bullying.

If there’s a a proven proclivity for people to open up to virtual agents and trust them, there’s a concern that such agents could be used to manipulate people and to coax them into divulging confidential information that could be used maliciously.

What Maass seems to find most disturbing is that some of the documents released as part of the FOIA request suggest the government deploys virtual agents to bait and ensnare criminals. Maass asks what happens when a virtual agent misinterprets something someone says and labels them as some sort of offender. How many false positives occur as a result of the large volume of conversations that the government’s covert chatbots engage in? What happens to a person once the chatbot flags them as an offender? These are valid concerns that warrant further investigation and the EFF seems like the right organization to pursue them.

It seems fair to apply a higher level of scrutiny to the government, seeing as how the government has the power to take away a person’s freedom. I get that. At the same time, though, the government needs to be able to leverage the same technologies that are available to private industry. If they are precluded from doing so, you end up with technology that is inadequate and that does not serve the public well. Sgt. STAR has a very strong use case: the Army recruiting site was swamped with inquiries following September 11, 2001 and they needed a practical and cost-effective way to provide the public with the answers they were seeking. Just as any responsible organization would do, they looked for the best state-of-the-art technology to meet the need. As the challenges of protecting freedom become more complex in our modern world, it probably makes sense to encourage the government to employ the same artificial intelligence capabilities available to private industry, while holding them accountable for how they use that technology.

 

 

 

 

 

Do Virtual Agents Make a Website Stickier?

A reader of this blog emailed me with a question last week. The reader wanted to know if I was aware of any research showing definitively that the presence of a virtual assistant / virtual agent on a website makes that site more appealing and more sticky to users. I did a bit of pondering on this question and came up with the following response.

Intelligent Virtual AgentI don’t know of any concrete research that proves that the presence of virtual assistants on a website makes that site stickier. The two main data points that are cited in official research in estimating the Return on Investment (ROI) for virtual assistants are cost savings and sales conversions.

Cost savings come by using virtual assistants to answer more routine questions, thereby reducing the work load on human call agents. Cost savings are generally measured in percentage of reduced calls to human agents.

I’m not exactly sure how sales conversions are tracked, but I imagine it’s the number of visitors to a website who completed a purchase transaction after engaging with a virtual agent.

If anyone else knows of any publicly available data that indicates a website’s stickiness (perhaps based on bounce rate or some other engagement measure) improves through the use of virtual agents, please let me know. It’s an interesting question and I do believe that this is data that ought to be collected.

Shortcut App Lets You Control Home Devices With Voice Commands

Techcrunch ran a post this week about Shortcut, a voice-enabled mobile app that helps you control all the connected devices within your home. The company behind the Shortcut app was founded by Duy Huynh, Justin Lucas, and Binh Nguyen and is backed by 500-Startups.

ShortcutThe basic idea behind Shortcut is that we need a simple way to control the numerous different devices that already surround us in our homes, or are about to surround us. How can we really benefit from smart toasters and coffee makers and thermostats, lights and door locks, if we have to call up a separate app and interface for every single device? That would almost be like having to grab a separate remote to interact with each individual channel on our TV set.

And why settle for a dumb remote when we can use voice technology to simply talk to the controller? Shortcut is like a mobile personal assistant specifically trained to control all your smart devices based on simple voice commands. Huynh and his team aren’t trying to create an assistant that you can really converse with. The Shortcut app is only trained to understand and execute targeted commands for specific devices.

According to Techcrunch, the app takes advantage of public APIs to connect to third-party devices that offer them. It works with companies such as Sonos, Jawbone, EcoBee, Unikey and others to develop integrations where public APIs aren’t available.

Yesterday I wrote about Bill Meisel’s summary of the Mobile Voice Conference 2014. Meisel mentioned specialized personal assistants, which have targeted abilities in specific areas. Our personal assistants of the near future may know how to control smart devices for us, relieving us of the burden of learning how all these complex systems work. We can look forward to the day when we can just ask the mobile assistant to turn up the A/C and the music, start the coffee maker an hour later in the morning, and record a favorite TV show. The assistant will send all the required instructions to each device and make our wishes come true. Someday we might even be able to have a true conversation with that same virtual assistant while we’re waiting for our coffee to brew!

Mobile Voice Conference 2014 Wrap-Up

This year’s Mobile Voice Conference took place in San Francisco from March 3-5. While the conference focuses on speech and natural language technology on a mobile platform, this year’s event included many sessions on virtual assistants and virtual agent technologies. William Meisel, the conference organizer. recently posted a summary of the conference presentations. For those of us who weren’t fortunate enough to attend, it seems we missed out on some great content.

Mobile Voice Conference 2014Meisel noted that there were topics covering both general personal assistants and specialized assistants. He classifies general personal assistants as those whose capabilities tend to be broad, but not very deep, such as Siri and Google Now. These mobile assistants try to do a lot of things, but they don’t have very deep skills in any one domain. Specialized personal assistants, on the other hand, target their capabilities at more narrowly focused areas. Meisel cites customer service avatars, sometimes called web self-service agents, as examples of specialized assistants.

The conference included presentations that addressed both the general and the specialized virtual assistant market. There were also talks on voice-enabled apps in cars, wearables, biometric authentication, conversational interfaces, and more.

The Mobile Voice Conference is organized by AVIOS, the Applied Voice Input/Output Society. Keep an eye out for announcements about next year’s conference. It it’s anything like this year’s, it’ll be a great opportunity to network with other professionals from the mobile voice and virtual assistant industry and learn about where those technologies are heading.

Wellframe App Is Like a Virtual Physician’s Assistant

VentureBeat ran a story by Kia Kokalitcheva about the health technology startup Wellframe. Wellframe is designing mobile apps that assist people to better manage chronic illnesses. It doesn’t appear that the Wellframe health apps are conversational at this point, but they seem to me to fall into the virtual assistant category. They aim to collect and understand data about the patient’s health situation and then design a program specifically tailored to the patient’s needs.

WellframeAfter a patient is diagnosed with a condition, like a cardiac issue, the patient is matched to a clinical program designed to assist him or her in having a successful rehabilitation. Knowing what to do and when to do it can be confusing for someone facing new health issues. And it’s difficult to stay in touch with busy physicians and get personalized attention. The Wellframe app is a kind of stand-in for a physician’s assistant, offering daily to-do lists that help the patient focus on things that will improve his or her health outcome. The app can also send data about the patient’s regime and physical statistics to a central server so that the patient’s doctor can keep an eye on things through a web dashboard.

The Wellframe app can’t be used without an official activation code provided by the patient’s physician. It’s about extending the reach of the physician / clinician, not about simply providing a self-directed health app.

Now imagine an app like those designed by Wellframe, but integrated into a general virtual assistant like Google Now, Siri, Dragon Mobile Assistant, Cortana, or others. How powerful would it be to have an intelligent assistant that you can talk to and that can speak to you as well, that can prompt you with speech or a text message to take your medication, or encourage you to take your daily walk and provide friendly kudos when you’ve done so. If you’re not sure if it’s okay to have that salty treat or eat another helping of eggs, you can just have a quick conversation with your assistant about it. If you’re doctor isn’t available when you’ve got some basic questions, you can talk to your assistant and either get the answers, or have the assistant update your doctor’s dashboard with details about your question and a request to get back to you.

It’ll be interesting to see if these specialized apps can become integrated into the basic layer of more general voice-enabled, conversational assistant apps. These types of super-deep domain expertise are what’s needed to take today’s virtual assistants to the next level.

SecondEGO – A New Option for Creating a Virtual Agent for Your Business

SecondEGOAmebis recently launched SecondEGO, their new chatbot /  virtual agent platform. The SecondEGO platform is aimed at businesses that want to create a virtual customer assistant for their website.

SecondEGO operates on a freemium model. The basic free version allows you to create a virtual agent that answers up to 500 questions a month. For $29/month the number of answers you get increases to 900 and you have access to additional features, including triggers, full analytics, and priority support. Triggers allow you to control what actions or questions will activate the agent and get it to interact with customers. For example, you might set a trigger that has your virtual agent ask “Can I help you find something?” if the user has visited more than 3 different web pages on your site.

For $69/month, you get 2,500 answers a month and intelligent website text search. The intelligent web search allows your virtual agent to connect to your website and find the answers to unscripted questions that your customers might ask. SecondEgo folks tell me that they recently added a feature that helps the virtual agent track down keywords on your website even when the user doesn’t know exactly what they’re looking for.

I put the Second Ego platform through its paces by creating a couple of virtual agents. SecondEGO offers a clean user interface. It’s fairly easy and intuitive to use. As with similar platforms, there’s no AIML scripting necessary. You have the ability to train the bot by adding your own patterns with questions and answers. Each question can have multiple variations and each answer can as well. You can also categorize your patterns.

When creating the bot you can select from several different languages, including English, French, German, and Slovenian. If you choose German, for example, Wikipedia looks up the question in German and responds in German.

When you first set up your chatbot, you have the option of connecting to different pre-existing knowledge modules. These modules include a link to Wikipedia for factual answers. There’s also a Personality module,  a General Knowledge module that includes jokes, basic Chat, and Fillers (generic replies to unknown questions). I wasn’t sure how to see or edit the contents of these modules, but there may be a way. My guess is that the SecondEgo team will continue to add content modules.

SecondEGO seems to be competing with platforms like Chatbot4u.com, Bot Libre!. I’ve tried all of those platforms and I think any of them could be a great fit for a small to medium-sized business that wants to add a virtual customer assistant to their website. All three platforms offer free basic models. SecondEGO and Chatbot4u offer premium services that let you bump up functionality for a fee.

One advantage that the Chatbot4u platform seems to have over the current SecondEGO site is the ability for follow-up questions. With the Business package, Chatbot4u offers a depth of 5 follow-up questions. Giving your virtual agent the ability to ask follow up questions makes the conversation much more natural and engaging. Here’s an example:

  • Person: How old are you?
  • Bot: I was created 2 years ago. What month were you born in?
  • Person: <any answer>
  • Bot: No kidding?! That’s when I was born too! Do you like birthday cake?
  • Person: <any answer>
  • Bot: I love cake. I could eat cake all day long.

These follow-up questions on the same topic create the illusion that the chatbot has a real brain. It would be even more effective if there was a way to distinguish between different responses, as you can do when using AIML. Here would be an example:

  • Person: How old are you?
  • Bot: I was created 2 years ago. What month were you born in?
  • Person: January
  • Bot: Are you a Capricorn or an Aquarius?
  • Person: Aquarius
  • Bot: Here’s today’s horoscope for Aquarius…..

It appears that the team behind SecondEGO is eager to expand the platform, so these types of extended features may be available in the future. In the meantime, if you’re interested in improving customer service by adding a helpful virtual agent to your website, you might give SecondEGO a try and see if meets your needs.