Could Intelligent Assistants Prevent School Shootings?

Can intelligent personal assistants / mobile virtual assistants help to stop senseless school shootings? Can the same technology that fuels applications like Siri, Google Now, and EasilyDo sense when a young man has crossed the boundary from heartbreak into violent psychosis?

Troubled YouthEnvision an imaginary teenager named John Doe. John has had a difficult time adjusting to the social pressures of high school. The few friends he has are not part of the popular crowd and John has had brushes with school bullies. Recently, John has developed a crush on a girl from the popular crowd who happens to live in his neighborhood. Several months previously, John worked up the courage to ask her out, but she rejected him. In the process of her rejection, she also insulted John and instigated several bullies from her clique to mock him. These past few months have been a living hell for John and he can’t go on any longer.

There are warning signs that John is under intense emotional pressure. He has stopped playing club soccer. He has posted some disturbing images on Facebook and has made tweets that focus on betrayal and hint at the desire for revenge.

So what could John’s intelligent assistant do to help him in his troubled situation and prevent him from spiraling out of control? John’s IA has access to lots of information about him. The IA needs this access in order to provide John with the timely information he relies on. The IA maintains John’s calendar. It scans John’s emails to find out who his contacts are and to alert him of things like the status of packages he’s ordered. John’s IA can keep an eye on the sentiment of his tweets. The IA can get a sense of when John is under stress. The IA may even be able to look at a combination of factors and connect the dots to realize that John might be planning a very bad thing.

All of these technologies are available today. They might not be combined yet into one app, but they could be. The challenge probably lies in getting someone like John to agree to have his IA look out for him. If John were in agreement, who would the IA alert if signs pointed to a possible emotional crisis? Would John perhaps agree to have a peer alerted? If so, what’s the responsibility of the peer? What if the IA alerted a parent? In that case, John would most likely change his behavior to avoid detection. What if the IA were to alert a social worker or therapist? Again, many people would likely decline to use the app if they knew it was tracking them and could end up ‘ratting them out’ to some sort of professional or even to law enforcement.

What would convince people to have an IA keep a watchful eye over them to protect them from themselves? That’s a question that needs to be researched. There are obvious ethical questions associated with such an IA that go beyond just the user’s agreement to use it. But with the technology available, it seems like an application of intelligent assistant features that should be investigated. For someone like John, simply having a friend or trusted adult or peer know about his emotional pain could make all the difference. If this confidant could express sympathy and lend an ear, it might forestall John from making very bad decisions.

Will intelligent assistants of the future play the role of watchful, caring overseers that get us the help we need before we can cause harm to ourselves and other? It seems like a plausible scenario and one that should be explored.

Dom from Domino’s Stars in His Own TV Spot

Back in August, I wrote about Dom, the intelligent pizza ordering assistant embedded in the Domino’s Pizza app. Dom was one of three winners of the Intelligent Assistants Award presented at Opus Research’s 1st Annual Intelligent Assistants Conference held in mid-September. If you saw my previous blog post about 3 Characteristics of Highly Effective Intelligent Assistants, Dom is a great example of an assistant that performs well in all three categories.

DomEarlier this month, Domino’s released a TV commercial that showcases Dom and his voice-assisted ordering features. If you haven’t seen the ad yet, take a moment to watch it now. What I really like about the commercial is the way it pokes fun at Dom’s single-minded focus. It also hints at how much we’ve come to rely on our speech-enabled intelligent assistants.

You get a strong sense of Dom’s light-hearted personality in the TV spot, a personality that represents the pizza maker’s brand very well. The Dom ad made me realize that intelligent assistants (even specialized, branded assistants) have gone mainstream and they’re part of our world. There’s no turning back. Now if I could only get Dom to help me choose between a Honolulu Hawaiian and a Pacific Veggie pizza. Hmmm.

2 Weeks with EasilyDo – the Intelligent Personal Assistant 

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been using EasilyDo’s intelligent assistant app. EasilyDo’s assistant isn’t a voice-enabled personality like Siri, Cortana, Speaktoit, or similar apps. If there’s a need to draw a comparison, EasilyDo is more akin to the faceless Google Now app that operates more in the background. In speaking with Hetal Pandya, co-founder and VP of marketing, I learned that the team at EasilyDo has a distinct philosophy about what makes an effective intelligent personal assistant. It’s their belief that an assistant needs to know enough about you to provide you with highly useful information before you ask for it. If you’re having to talk to your intelligent assistant to find out things, like what the weather’s like, when your next meeting is, or what’s trending with your friends on social media, then your assistant isn’t doing a very good job.

EasilyDoEasilyDo has lots of features, but I’ve been concentrating on just a handful of the capabilities that are available in the robust freemium version. When I pull open the app, I see cards for the local weather, alerts about current flight itineraries, notices about bills that are due, reminders about friends’ upcoming birthdays, and top friend photos on Facebook. I find all of these prompts extremely helpful and it’s great to have them all available in one central location on my phone.

So how does EasilyDo know all about the flight I have tomorrow and the two bills that I need to pay, one to a credit card company and the other to a local plumber? When I configured EasilyDo, I connected it to my primary Gmail account. This account is where I get flight confirmations, bill reminders, and invoices. EasilyDo has intelligence that can scan the email and pick out the ones that are relevant to the notifications it can provide. I even switched on a feature that prompts the app to notify me if I get an email from specific people. This helps keep me on top of things, especially when I’m busy or preoccupied with work or other activities. These alerts are only passed along in real-time if you have the premium version, so that might be a good reason to upgrade!

I’ve taken a couple of trips since installing EasilyDo and the flight alerts are extremely handy. The premium version gives you lots of realtime alerts, but even the freemium version is very helpful. I was getting EasilyDo alerts about what gate my connecting flight would be leaving from even before I received them from the airline app.

I also linked EasilyDo to my Facebook account. I must confess that I’m not a heavy Facebook user. I don’t log into my account much, and my only friends are close relatives, such as siblings and nieces and nephews. My social media focus is more on Twitter and LinkedIn. But I really do like to keep up with what’s going on with those wild and crazy nieces and nephews of mine. EasilyDo’s top photos of the day feature is a perfect fit for me. At the end of each day, it shows me my friends’ photos that have received the most likes, so with a quick glance at the app, I’m up to speed on what’s trending.

The app can integrate with Dropbox, Evernote, and Box too. Besides Facebook, it can connect with your accounts on Instagram and LinkedIn. It can work with your calendar and with Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, Exchange, and IMAP mail accounts. It has other features that I haven’t tried out yet and my guess is that the EasilyDo team is busy working on new capabilities. It’s important to note that the team takes security seriously. Email accounts, user names, and passwords are encrypted and critical data is encrypted both at rest and while in transit.

It will be interesting to see which intelligent assistant philosophy will take precedence over time in the marketplace: the conversational personalities or the behind the scenes predictors and notifiers. Perhaps they’ll coexist for a while, or maybe they’ll merge. Will we want to talk to our assistants in the future, or will we want them to be better at reading our minds? It’s hard to say for sure at this point, but EasilyDo’s capability as a predictive information aggregator is awfully compelling. I’ve only been using the app for a short time, but I’m already hooked.

What’s Robotic Process Automation? And who is Amelia?

IPsoft AmeliaIPsoft recently announced the launch of Amelia, their intelligent personal assistant. IPsoft also offers robotic process automation (RPA) technology that could drastically expand the capabilities of the average virtual customer care agent.

To find out more about Amelia and RPA, read my guest blog post “Meet IPsoft’s New Intelligent Assistant Robot: Amelia” on the OpusResearch blog.

3 Ways to Measure the Effectiveness of Your Enterprise Intelligent Assistant

Measure successIn the last blog post, I wrote about 3 characteristics of highly effective enterprise intelligent assistants. As you think about deploying intelligent assistant / virtual agent technology in your own business, or as you seek to gauge the effectiveness of your existing self-service systems, here are 3 additional areas to think about.

Persona

If you’re using a personified intelligent assistant as a self-service channel, the assistant is essentially representing your brand. Giving your virtual agent a name and personality that fits your business could mean the difference between an engaging experience and one that falls flat.

At the very least, intelligent assistants with an engaging persona:

  • Display a personality either visually or through speech
  • Show some spunk
  • Respond to basic greetings and small talk
  • Represent your brand with a brand-related flair

Business Value 

You probably prepared a business case before implementing your enterprise intelligent assistant. You’ll want to periodically check how you’re doing and whether you’re meeting your objectives. You’ll have specific metrics to measure, such as call deflection rates and reduction in abandoned shopping carts. Here are some more general ways to measure the overall business value that your company is getting from the web self-service technology.

HIghly effective intelligent assistants with a high business value:

  • Are fully deployed to external customers
  • Provide meaningful and necessary services to customers (beyond just answering FAQs)
  • Are obviously used and appear in more prominent locations on your website
  • Have capabilities that are key to the company’s business and/or very important to the customer
  • Have highly rated mobile apps (where mobile apps are available)
  • Do not compete with other, more easily accessible self-service options

Innovation

Intelligent assistant technologies, including speech recognition, natural language processing, conversational skills, and user interfaces are all developing at astonishing rates. How do you measure how innovative your intelligent assistant is? The only way I know to keep pace is to remain aware of what’s in the marketplace. Are other companies, and perhaps even your competitors, deploying virtual agents on mobile apps, while your agent is only on your website? Do other companies have virtual agents that handle multiple languages, but yours understands only English? Is it time to revamp your user interface to take advantage of more intuitive, mobile-friendly technologies?

Truly innovative intelligent assistants:

  • Display features and technologies that go above and beyond those of other intelligent assistants currently available in the marketplace

Intelligent assistant technologies are developing rapidly. They can offer your business real, measurable value. If you haven’t taken the leap yet, it’s time to get started. If you’re already benefiting from enterprise intelligent assistants, stay apprised of new developments and implementation ideas to continue to enjoy your competitive advantage.

3 Characteristics of Highly Effective Enterprise Intelligent Assistants

As we’ve seen recently, companies are using enterprise intelligent assistants (intelligent agents) to gain significant business value. Some companies have implemented intelligent assistants to drive down call center costs, while still offering high quality customer support. Other companies are using innovative, voice-enabled assistants to attract new customers and appeal to a younger demographic. There are also organizations that offer intelligent assistants on their websites and other channels to give customers a self-service option that’s convenient to use and always available. Some companies combine all of these strategies.

RatingsWhat are the characteristics of an effective intelligent assistant? This is a question that I’ve put quite a bit of thought into as I evaluate various technologies and vendors for this blog.

Here are some of the categories and associated traits of highly effective intelligent assistants / virtual agents.

Customer Experience

Customer experience is all about how easy and intuitive the intelligent assistant is to interact with, how well it lives up to the user’s expectations, and how satisfying the overall experience is.

Intelligent assistants offer an excellent customer experience if they:

  • Are easy to interact with
  • Consistently understand the customer’s intent
  • Provide useful responses to customer questions
  • Provide responses that are easy to find and interpret
  • Are engaging and fun to interact with

User Interface

The User interface category focuses on the design and usability of the frontend through which the user interacts with the intelligent assistant. This may be a combination of visual interface and voice interface.

Highly effective intelligent agent user interfaces:

  • Are intuitive to interact with
  • Make it quick and painless for the user to ask questions
  • Present answers in a way that is quick and easy to understand and intepret
  • Are aesthetically pleasing

Breadth

Intelligent assistants need to be versatile and multifaceted to be truly effective. The best intelligent agents are:

  • Capable of performing multiple services
  • Able to answer a very broad range of questions
  • Able to perform transactions for the customer (and not just respond to inquiries)

In the next blog post, I’ll write about three additional characteristics that can help intelligent assistants excel at what they do.

Finalists announced for 2014 Loebner Prize

Loebner PrizeEach year since 1991, botmasters from around the world submit their chatbots to compete for the coveted Loebner Prize. I’ve written a lot recently about customer-facing intelligent assistants used by enterprises to augment call centers, improve web search, and perform routine business processes. Chatbots rely on some of the same concepts as enterprise intelligent assistants. They are conversational and respond to questions by leveraging a database of matching responses. But chatbots are fundamentally different.

The sole purpose of chatbots is to engage so effectively in small talk, that their human dialog partners don’t realize they’re speaking with software programs. During a presentation at this year’s SpeechTek, Dr. Richard Wallace of Pandorabots expressed the opinion that creative types–especially those with a background in the humanities and storytelling–create the most convincing chatbots. Being a successful botmaster is more about creating a character, apparently, than about programming. But I bet programming is still required. It’s not easy to pass the first round of testing, and even a convincing character isn’t likely to score well on the no-nonsense test.

This year 20 chatbots were entered into the contest and a fews weeks ago, the top 4 entrants were announced. These 4 will move on to the actual Turing Test at Bletchley Park on November 15th. Each entrant was asked 20 questions.  Here’s a sample:

  • The car couldn’t fit into the parking space because it was too small. What was too small?
  • Which drink do you prefer, coffee, tea, or hot chocolate?
  • What do I do with a spade?
  • How many letters are there in perambulate?

As you can see, these aren’t normal chitchat questions. They’re questions designed to trip up a chatbot. Amazingly, the top chatbots were able to answer most of these questions convincingly. You can look at all the actual transcripts from each entrant’s test by going to the official AISB (The Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation Behavior) website. It’s interesting to see how the chatbots responded. The top 4 bots and their creators for 2014 are:

Loebner PrizeIf you’re not easily offended by crude language, you can also check out the transcript of Trollbot’s responses to the questions. They’re not exactly accurate, but they’re highly amusing. Trollbot is a classic chatbot, in that he/it relies completely on his personality to fake it through the conversation. He doesn’t mince words!

It’ll be interesting to see which chatbot wins the Loebner Prize competition this year, and whether another bot can “pass” the Turing Test. In the meantime, if you’re an aspiring botmaster, take a look at my earlier post on what classic mistakes to avoid when scripting your bot’s answers.