How Intelligent Assistants Stack Up Against Visual IVR

Jacada is a provider of Visual IVR solutions. I’ve written about Jacada in the past, including a post that explains Visual IVR and provides some examples of how it can be applied to support customers across various use cases and channels. Jacada has put together an interesting chart that compares Visual IVR to four other customer support technologies.

Visual IVRThe comparison chart takes a look at how Visual IVR stacks up against Chat, Co-Browse,Click to Call, and Virtual Agents. The chart and accompanying document point out some advantages that Visual IVR has over virtual agents / intelligent assistants.

Let’s imagine a scenario in which a user needs to track the status of a repair ticket for their computer. There might be intelligent assistant solutions on the market that can respond to questions about a specific support ticket. But, as the Jacada document points out, most virtual agent implementations offer answers to more generic questions about products and services.

In the case of Visual IVR, the customer might initiate a chat session. When the chat agent learns that the customer wants the status of their repair ticket, the agent can send a link to the customer’s smartphone. When the customer clicks the link, she’ll get a visual support experience that can provide the status of her ticket. This kind of seamless transfer from a chat session to a tailored self-service session on the customer’s phone isn’t a capability of the intelligent assistant solutions I’ve seen.

However, vendors of intelligent assistants know the value of maintaining the context of a customer interaction across various channels. Many vendors either have some capabilities in that regard, or have them on the development wish list. Intelligent assistants don’t just reside on websites anymore, but can be found on mobile devices, social media platforms, and enterprise applications. Maintaining context across channels, or even offering a consistent user experience across these channels, is what separates good solutions from superior ones.

But Jacada makes valid points about how Visual IVR can offer an improved user experience in a wide range of use cases. For companies exploring ways to provide self-service options to their customers, Visual IVR should certainly be a candidate.

Will Future Intelligent Assistants Be Able to Detect Depression?

CNN recently ran a story about research on a smartphone app that can predict depression. The Purple Robot app was created by researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois. The app leverages data about a user’s location, movement, phone usage, and other activities.

Apps that detect depressionThe goal of Purple Robot is to analyze this smartphone usage data to objectively predict how likely the user is to have depression. Movement turns out to be a good indicator of a person’s mental wellness. GPS data can show how much a person has moved around between their regular locations. The more stationary a person is, the more likely they are to be depressed.

The Purple Robot app can also analyze the way a person uses his or her phone.The amount of time someone spends playing games or texting, but not talking on the phone, turns out to be another indicator that the person may be suffering from depression.

The accuracy of Purple Robot is still being determined and there’s certainly room for improvement. But the idea that a fairly simple smartphone app can objectively gauge a user’s risk for depression has lots of implications.

Will our intelligent assistants of the future have mental wellness trackers built-in, alongside daily fitness trackers? Instead of just prompting the user to stand or take more steps, could the intelligent assistant encourage the user to talk to a friend? Even an average assistant should know the user’s taste in music, sports teams, and perhaps hobbies. If the assistant notes the user has been spending a lot of time at home alone, could it start pushing recommendation cards of upcoming events that it predicts the user will be interested in? Could it be proactive and invite friends to join the fun?

Health trackers and workout apps are popular. Mindfulness and meditation apps are a growing trend. It seems only a matter of time before apps that track mental fitness enter the mainstream and eventually become integrated with our personal assistants.

Cortana Enters the Enterprise with Predictive Analytics

Microsoft announced the Cortana Analytics Suite at the Microsoft World Wide Partner Conference in Orlando. Recently I wrote about the potential for intelligent assistants in the Enterprise. The Microsoft announcement seems to be a step in that direction.

Cortana Analytics SuiteCortana Analytics Suite appears to consist of packaged machine-based learning solutions that companies can implement to gain new insights about their customers, product lines, and business. The underlying technology and focus on predictive analytics seems to compete squarely with IBM Watson’s cognitive computing solution.

See my guest post on the Opus Research blog to find out more about Microsoft’s push to combine predictive business analytics with the personality of an intelligent assistant.


Tractica Foresees Strong Growth in Intelligent Assistants

Tractica, a  market intelligence firm that focuses on human interaction with technology, has published a report on what they term digital virtual assistants. In the report, Tractica examines both the consumer and enterprise markets.

Digital BrainI don’t have access to the full report, but I reviewed the table of contents and read a press release that described the contents. Tractica predicts strong growth in the overall intelligent assistant space. The way in which they measure the growth is interesting.

The press release states that Tractica predicts that intelligent assistants will become integrated into 3.3 billion consumer devices by 2020, up from 821 million in 2014. I’m assuming that the 821 million isn’t referring to 821 different products, but 821 instances of the products that have intelligent assistants.

A report in CNET from May stated that 94 million iPhones were in use in the U.S. at the end of March 2015, so it’s not hard to imagine that there are currently at least 821 million devices with intelligent assistants worldwide. An expansion of that number to 3.3 billion in five years sounds reasonable. Especially when you consider all the various functional domains where intelligent assistants are already in use, it seems a safe bet that the number will increase significantly.

In the consumer space, the report  takes a closer look at Speaktoit’s Assistant, Amazon Echo/Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, Google Now, and Apple Siri.

Tractica also examines intelligent assistants across Banking and Finance, Education, Government, Healthcare, Retail, Travel, Utilities Telecom, and other verticals. They take an in-depth look at enterprise intelligent assistants from Next IT, IPSoft, AVST, GetAbby (Eidoserve), and Nuance. In addition, they cover 27 key industry players across both the consumer and the enterprise markets.

The report also notes areas of improvement that are needed to help intelligent assistants reach a wider audience and fulfill their potential. The improvement areas include better consumer education and “seamless handover between assistants.”

You can find out more about the report or order a full copy from the Tractica website.

HitchBOT Talking Robot Sets Off Across USA Tonight

Do you remember hitchBOT? The talking robot made news last year when it used its disarmingly silly looks and sometimes chatty personality to successfully hitchhike across Canada. The talking robot also hitched rides across Germany and the Netherlands. HitchBOT is now preparing to set off on new adventures across the USA.

hitchBOTArmed with a bucket list of American sites it wants to see and some improved technology, hitchBOT will be placed somewhere in Salem, MA tonight. It will wait patiently on the side of the road for some kind stranger to pick it up and transport it a little closer to its ultimate destination of San Francisco, CA.

The robot is the invention of two Canadian communications professors, Dr. David Harris Smith and Dr. Frauke Zeller. It’s a simple design. HitchBOT doesn’t have any moving parts. But, according to an article in Beta Boston, the robot comes equipped with a GPS, microphones, speakers, speech recognition software, and Cleverscript coding. Like a simple chatbot, it can answer basic questions and even look up information in Wikipedia.

There’s a video in which hitchBOT talks about its plan for travel across the USA. I looked on YouTube for examples of hitchBOT really conversing with someone. Here’s a video that shows a pretty idealized version of picking up the robot and chatting with it. It seems the technology isn’t always so cooperative, though, as can be seen in this amusing video of a German journalist trying to interview hitchBOT.

In this video interview, the hitchBOT creators make it clear that their simple talking robot was never meant to wow people with fancy technology. They describe the robot as an emergent piece of cultural theater that’s meant to help us think about how we adopt and integrate technology into our social and cultural life.

It’s an interesting experiment. HitchBOT has just enough of a backstory to make it (him/her) interesting. And the fact that the robot has definite travel goals that it needs help achieving seems to awaken the neighborly instinct in people.

You can keep up with hitchBOT’s travels by checking out the tracking map on the robot’s website. We’ll never know about the conversations it has along the way, but we hope they’re good ones.

Happy Trails and Safe travels, hitchBOT!

Blue Frog Launches Buddy Companion Robot Campaign

Seems the wait is almost over for people who’ve been dreaming for years of smart, talking companion robots. Jibo was a big deal when the crowdfunding campaign introduced the futuristic social robot about a year ago. To date, Jibo has raised a monumental $3.7M in crowdfunding.

Then there was a personal robot from Robotbase. And don’t forget Pepper from Aldebaran.

Buddy Companion RobotNow there’s the announcement of Buddy, a companion robot offered by the French robotics company Blue Frog. The response to the campaign has been huge. In just six days, enthusiastic supporters have pledged over $185K, which is already $85K more than the $100K campaign goal.

People really want a personal robot! Well, at least the techie early adopter types on crowdfunding sites want one. It remains to be seen how large the market for these products will be, but if they can deliver on even some of their promises, there’s bound to be demand.

Jibo and Robotbase’s robot are both still on preorder, meaning neither robot is shipping yet. Blue Frog says that Buddy’s design is complete and the Indiegogo campaign is to raise money to start production. The Indiegogo page indicates that the first Developer kit version of Buddy will ship by the end of the year, with the Classic Edition shipping in May 2016.

Blue Frog is building the robot, which moves around on wheels, on an open framework using the Unity3D gaming platform and OpenCV. They seem to be courting developers to join the Buddy Developer Program and expand Buddy’s capabilities.

Out of the box, Buddy is said to have speech recognition, text-to-speech, human and object detection, recognition, and tracking, real time house tracking, remote control, and autonomous obstacle avoidance. The demo video shows Buddy interacting with people in a conversational way, answering questions, helping children with homework, reading stories, playing hide and seek, and performing a whole range of other tasks to support the family.

Buddy is like a cross between Amazon Echo and R2-D2. We live in exciting times! It’s clear from Buddy’s design that he’s meant to be cute and cuddly. His shape is reminiscent of E.T. You half expect to hear him say something about phoning home.

Like so many others, I’m anxious to see this little robot guy (and Jibo and the others) come to life. The first iteration of Buddy will understand both French and English. No matter what the language, the possibilities seem limitless.

Customer-Facing Virtual Agents – Dystopias for Discussion

In my last blog post, I briefly touched on the topic of personal data and how companies like Google and Apple are thinking about acquiring and using it to increase the effectiveness of their intelligent personal assistants. I brought up the subject of trust and transparency with regard to how corporations handle our personal data and mentioned that a set of industry guidelines might be useful.

Dystopian ScenarioIn this post I want to explore possible future ethical issues surrounding customer-facing virtual agents. This topic is admittedly speculative, but sometimes speculation can be entertaining.

Customer-Facing virtual agents, also known as intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs) or web self-service agents, are gaining traction in the marketplace. For large organizations that field high volumes of customer inquiries, the return on investment for implementing IVA technologies is compelling. The typical use case for an IVA is to provide 24/7 customer self-service via web or mobile platforms. The usefulness of the IVA is often measured in a metric known as call deflection, meaning the percentage of incoming inquiries the IVA can answer without the need to escalate them to a live agent.

As artificial intelligence technology matures, IVAs are able to perform more advanced services. IVAs can gather information about the customer and the context of the customer’s situation to provide predictive functions. For example, if you’ve overdrawn your checking account and you visit the bank’s mobile support app, a smart IVA might say something like “I see you’ve overdrawn your checking account. May I assist you in setting up overdraft protection?”

IVAs can also leverage recommendation algorithms to present you with offers that they predict might resonate with you and inspire you to make a purchase.

Now comes the interesting question. What are the ethics around IVAs, especially as the technology advances? Let’s imagine a dystopian scenario where the technology has both the power and the intention to manipulate an unsuspecting customer.

Let’s imagine that the IVA has compiled data that shows Mary tends to shop in an impulsive way on Thursday nights. (The IVA probably doesn’t know that Mary has a monthly board meeting on Thursday that really stresses her out and that shopping is what she does to let off steam, but its data analysis has alerted it to the trend). The IVA proactively engages Mary on Thursday night and starts suggesting products that it predicts she’ll like based on past purchases. It also remembers that Mary likes to talk about her dog, so while it’s tempting her to load up her shopping cart with things she doesn’t need, it distracts her by asking chatty questions about Lucky. Within a couple of months, Mary has become addicted to her Thursday night shopping binges, but her credit card debt has exploded.

This example is far-fetched and just used for illustrative purposes. But who will decide what guardrails IVAs need to stay inside? Should we trust the companies that deploy customer IVAs to follow ethical guidelines that preclude them from leveraging IVAs in a manipulative, but potentially lucrative, manner? Do shoppers need their own loyal personal intelligent assistants to protect them from the potential manipulations of retail-oriented IVAs? Who knows what the future will really bring, but these scenarios could make a fertile backdrop for good science fiction.