X.ai Builds a New Kind of Intelligent Meeting Assistant

X.ai is building a new personal meeting assistant, according to Techcrunch. The company has named the personal assistant Amy. The assistant’s full name is Amy Ingram,  so it’s not named after me, thank goodness! (Maybe the name isn’t so great for all the real life Amy Ingram’s out there. Now they’ll join the club of us folks who share the same name as a non-human imaginative figure).  Why does Amy need a real person’s name? Because X.ai is using a clever technology that differs from other personal meeting assistants

Screen shot 2014-05-29 at 6.49.37 PMYou don’t have to talk to Amy to ask her to set up a meeting. No voice commands needed. Instead, you simply copy her on the emails you send out about the meeting. The Amy smart technology will parse the email content and determine when and where to schedule the meeting and who to invite. Actually, I think you can also talk to Amy to have her (it) schedule your meeting if you prefer that option. But having her infer your intent from emails is more seamless.

The X.ai personal assistant reminds me a bit of AVA, a technology offered by Bluesky that is targeted at auto dealers. The products fit completely different use cases, but they both employ AI techniques that interact with email and mimic human actions. AVA applies AI algorithms to read and write email correspondence that drives leads into the dealership and follows up to help close the sale. AVA supplements the dealership’s car salesmen and saleswomen who might be too busy (or too distracted) to follow up on every lead. In the demos provided of the AVA technology, the person receiving the email correspondence has no idea that they’re interacting with a non-human email bot / agent.

As language processing and machine learning algorithms improve, software agents will increasingly be able to mimic human conversational partners in both written and spoken exchanges. Having a virtual personal assistant who isn’t human, but who you can have organize your life just by including it on emails, seems like a useful thing indeed. Google Now already possesses a hint of these capabilities. It produces useful cards by recognizing the content of your Gmail messages. Just this weekend, Google Now presented me a card with all the information I needed for a hotel reservation I’d made. I was about to rifle through all my emails to try to find the confirmation number, but there is was, right on the card.

There’s an interesting blog post on the X.ai website by Dennis R. Mortensen, the company’s CEO and Founder, about how intelligent agents will soon be mining our email to find tasks to execute on our behalf.

If you want to be one of the first to try out the Amy automated meeting assistant, you can head to the X.ai website and add your email to their waiting list.


IntelliResponse OFFERS – Just In Time Marketing

IntelliResponse recently gave me the opportunity to conduct an email interview with CEO David Lloyd about their newly launched OFFERS product. IntelliResponse provides web self-service virtual agent technology to companies looking to improve customer service and automate the handling of more routine inquiries. They’ve recently been ranked as one of the top five vendors in the enterprise virtual assistant space in reports by Opus Research and TechNavio.

IntelliResponse OFFERSWhen I first saw the announcement about the OFFERS product I was a bit skeptical about it. OFFERS is basically a really clever way of showing people ads when they converse with a virtual agent on a company’s website (or potentially through other channels). Up until now, I’ve thought of interactions with customer-focused virtual agents as low-risk and low-impact to the customer. Research suggests that people actually prefer to interact with a virtual agent in some situations than with a human customer service rep. For instance, if the person is asking a question that they’re a little shy about, they’d often rather interact with an artificial virtual assistant. Or if they’re just curious about certain products and services and don’t want to be pushed into making a commitment, they often prefer to text chat with a service avatar than to engage a human.

What happens, then, when you equip the virtual service agent with the ability to present relevant ads to people as a result of the ongoing conversation? Does this dispel the fiction of a private, safe conversation? What happens if a potential banking customer thinks: “Here I was believing I was speaking in private to a virtual agent about my superficial interest in opening up a new savings account, and the next thing I know I’m being presented with an offer to sign up for the account now to receive a free toaster.” (IThat’s probably an anachronism, but I use it for illustrative purposes only!).

Is this type of context-relevant advertising creepy? Is it creepy in the same  way that it’s creepy when you see an ad for white wicker lawn chairs on some completely unrelated website, just hours after you were searching for white wicker lawn chairs via some search engine?

After reading through David Lloyd’s responses to some questions I asked, I think OFFERS has more upside for both the customer and the business than any potential downside (or creepiness).   Why? Well, according to IntelliResponse, the ads that are presented to the customer are extremely relevant to them. Using the IntelliResponse technology, the virtual agent not only understands and answers the customer’s question; it can discern the intent and then pass this intent onto the company’s ad servers. Knowing that the customer is really interested in booking a cruise, for example, would enable a travel company to present an ad for the current 50% last minute booking special. If the customer really wants to take a cruise, won’t they be grateful to find out that there’s a special going on that can save them 50%?

I don’t particularly like being followed around on the web based on my cookie trail and seeing white wicker lawn chair offers over and over again, no matter what the context of my current activity is. And this white wicker chair stalking isn’t very effective either. Chances are, I’ve moved on to some other obsession and couldn’t care less about lawn furniture. But with OFFERS, I’m being presented with an ad that’s directly related to the very thing I just asked about. This immediacy of opportunity has got to be a marketer’s dream. It’s like being able to show up at my doorstep with a box of bandaids two seconds after I just cut myself dicing onions. Need a bandaid? Why yes, yes I do! How much more immediate can you get? Is it creepy? Yeah, it’s probably still creepy. (Ok, the bandaid example is probably not a great one, because that one truly is the height of creepiness). But if I just asked about that cruise, then I want to know I can save 50% if I book it within the next two days. And if I get that deal, I’m likely to come back later for all my travel needs and engage with that kind and helpful virtual agent again. I might even send my friends to the site so that they can benefit too, if I’m a nice person.

I think IntelliResponse is on to something with OFFERS. If you combine OFFERS with the product VOICES that they launched last year, you can cover a lot of territory in terms of understanding your customers and being agile about offering products and services that meet their needs. VOICES, which I wrote about previously, analyzes the content of customer conversations to identify themes and trends. David Lloyd provided the following example: If VOICES shows that lots of customers are starting to ask about credit cards with travel rewards, then the company can be prepared to provide these cards and use OFFERS to make sure they get them in front of interested customers. It’s sort of like Just In Time product development coupled with Just in Time marketing.

IntelliResponse has been very innovative with their products. Apart for providing core virtual agent technology, they’ve been going further to offer customers a way to analyze incoming customer data and take action on it. Companies that implement these kinds of capabilities will probably be ahead of the curve, and I believe this trend towards gleaning customer intelligence through virtual agent interactions will continue to grow.

IBM Watson Gets a Cyber Twin

IBM recently acquired the chatbot company MyCyberTwin. Business Insider published this news in an article by Julie Bort on Monday of this week. I wrote about MyCyberTwin last year and did some digging into its Co-Founder and CEO, Liesl Capper. MyCyberTwin, which was subsequently renamed to Cognea, offered a build-your-own chatbot platform and hosting service in what is becoming an increasingly crowded space. It’s not surprising to see some consolidation occur through acquisitions. It’s interesting that IBM, which was apparently in the market for conversational virtual assistant technology to broaden Watson’s personality, chose Cognea over other platforms.

MyCyberTwinIn the Business Insider article, Bort links to a blog post by Mike Rhodin, the senior VP of IBM’s Watson group. In the post, Rhodin emphasizes the importance of what he calls “conversational services.” The era is fast approaching, he writes, when we’ll be able to converse in an easy and meaningful way with the smart machines that provide us the services we rely upon. Rhodin goes on to describe a Relating Portfolio, which is part of the Watson Platform. The Relating Portfolio deals with technologies that help us to better relate to technology and information. The four components of the Watson Platform are: Perceiving, Reasoning, Relating, and Learning.

Rhodin frames the acquisition of Cognea / MyCyberTwin as another step along IBM’s path to becoming a leader in providing conversational services. Apparently the virtual assistant fits into the “Relating” category. Rhodin praises the Cognea virtual assistant technology as offering a depth of personality that people can relate to and that can in turn understand the user’s personality and preferences.

Both Cognea Co-Founders, Liesl Capper and John Zakos, will apparently be joining IBM as part of the acquisition. What will it be like when we can ask Watson to answer all of our most difficult questions, find meaning in vast stores of information, tell us the pros and cons of every position, and then engage us in simple human-like chitchat when we just want to relax or pass the time? It might not be too much longer before we find out.


Jarvis Meets Ginger

Jarvis.jpgNews was released last week that Intel purchased some of the assets of Ginger Software for between $20 and $30 million. The purchase included Ginger’s personal assistant technology.

Seeking Alpha, which reported on the Ginger acquisition from an investor’s point of view, saw the purchase as a positive move. I wrote in an earlier post about Intel’s Jarvis technology, which is built on a specialized mini computer. This powerful chip, which runs Linux and other software tools, supports a full fledged virtual assistant without relying on the cloud. It makes it feasible for Intel to load the Ginger personal assistant directly onto a wearable device, such as the Jarvis smart headset.

Last year, Intel acquired Indisys, which was called the “intelligent dialog” company. I couldn’t find further information on how Intel utilized the Indisys technology. In the case of the Ginger purchase, Intel has added at least two engineers to its team. Yael Karov, CEO and Chief Scientist of the personal assistant division of Ginger and Micha Breakstone, an expert in NLP, are reportedly both moving over to Intel as part of the acquisition.

I found a lengthy interview with Yael Karov from last February, which includes some impressive demos of the Ginger virtual assistant technology.

As others have noted, competition in the hot virtual assistant space is picking up. It makes life interesting for those of us keeping a close eye on the virtual agent / personal assistant market.

IBM Watson’s Debating Skills and the Implications for Virtual Assistants of the Future

IBM WatsonYahoo Finance published an article last week on a new capability of IBM Watson, the cognitive computing platform. The article, by Rick Newman, addresses Watson’s newly unveiled skill of autonomously constructing logical arguments for and against any given position. Watson adds these new debating skills onto its already game-show-tested question / answering prowess.

In a demo that you can watch for yourself by going to this Popsci article, Watson is asked to construct arguments for and against a law banning the sale of violent video games to minors. In the demo, Watson takes less than ten seconds to return three well-constructed arguments on both the pro and con side of the proposed law. Watson describes the process steps along the way to determining its statements. Here are the steps:

  1. Scan 10K Wikipedia articles
  2. Return the 10 most relevant articles
  3. Scan all the sentences of the 10 selected articles
  4. Detect sentences with candidate claims
  5. Identify orders of candidate claims
  6. Assess pro and con polarity of candidate claims
  7. Construct demo speech with top claim predictions

Watson does not fabricate the pro and con arguments completely out of thin air. It identifies arguments that humans have previously made and documented. Still, Watson’s debating ability is an impressive new talent for the cognitive computer. Watson has to have a basic understanding of the position that it is being asked to both defend and argue against. Saying that Watson comprehends the meaning is probably going too far, but it has to decipher the key concepts so that it can locate documentation sources that contain supporting and dissenting opinions.

It seems that the same abilities could be used to fuel a more intelligent conversational virtual agent. What if you were conversing with a virtual assistant and it said “I don’t like hotdogs” and you asked it “Why don’t you like hotdogs?” Couldn’t an assistant enabled with Watson’s debater technology quickly scan sources to come up with a response like “Because the average hotdog contains a large amount of sodium nitrate, which is considered a carcinogen.” Then is could add “And besides, they give me heartburn.”

Having a conversation like that with a virtual assistant would be pretty compelling.

One other thought about the IBM Watson debating function. Watson’s arguments can only be as good as the human beings that authored them in the first place. To take the example in the demo about outlawing the sale of violent video games to minors, Watson can only articulate a compelling pro or con case if they exist in the documentation sources. This may be problematic. If nobody has figured out a good argument to oppose something that really needs to be opposed, Watson isn’t going to be the one to come up with it.

The other issue is that the smart people who carefully crafted these convincing arguments aren’t going to get any credit for them. I doubt that Watson is going to credit its sources. That’s one of the big downsides of all the free content available on the Internet. Most of the individuals who created the content don’t earn either kudos or monetary compensation. But, then again, having your views picked up and spread broadly across society can be a reward in itself. Who knows, someday something really smart you said may end up coming out of the mouth of a virtual assistant.

Can Cortana Live Up to Her Personality?

Tom Simonite recently published a piece in Technology Review about  the capabilities of Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant. Simonite spoke with Larry Heck, an engineer at Microsoft and a contributor to the Cortana project. According to the article, Cortana has some key capabilities that distinguish it from Apple’s Siri.

CortanaHeck contends that Cortana can track the meaning and context of conversations longer than Siri can. In the article, Simonite uses the example of someone asking Cortana to find a cheap Japanese restaurant close by. Once Cortana returns results, the virtual assistant is able to correctly respond to follow up queries such as “Which ones are still open?” and “How long will it take me to get there?” The ability to maintain the context of the conversation during these simple follow up questions would be a noticeable  improvement over current virtual assistant technologies.

By using the capabilities of Microsoft’s Bing search engine, Heck says that engineers are also developing ways for Cortana to access knowledge from the web in real time to respond to people’s questions.

Simonite also spoke with  Norman Winarsky, VP of SRI Venture at SRI International, for his insights. Winarsky makes two points that I find especially interesting. The first point is that user expectations are much higher for virtual assistants that are given a human personality. Users just naturally expect a virtual assistant in the persona for a “Siri” or a “Cortana” to be able to understand them and communicate with them according to the rules of natural human conversation. Simple mistakes in the dialog, which happen frequently with today’s limited conversational technology, aren’t easily forgiven and quickly cause user frustration. Simonite speculates that these unmet expectations may contribute to the fact that few people are actually using Siri. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that users are less frustrated by the personality-free Google Now.

The second point is that virtual assistants are much more effective when they’re implemented for a narrow, specialized area. They run into trouble  when they try to go broad. Winarsky points out that Siri was originally designed to handle queries for travel and entertainment. It’s much easier for a virtual assistant to understand questions and respond appropriately if the context of the queries is limited to a specific domain. Once Siri was expected to handle a much broader range of inquiries, the performance of the technology suffered.

Although there’s no discussion of web self-service virtual assistants (along the lines of Nuance’s Nina) in Simonite’s article, the same two observations probably still apply. Intelligent virtual agents that act as extensions of a brand’s customer service can perform reasonably well, because the range of questions they’re likely to receive is limited. On the other hand, the more such virtual agents are designed to mimic human call agents, the quicker customers are likely to become frustrated by the technological limitations.

It will be interesting to keep an eye on Cortana and see if this relatively new personal virtual assistant can live up to the early hype. At the same time, we’ll be on the lookout for how vendors of personal assistants and web self-service virtual agents handle the dual challenges of personality and specialization (or the move away from it).