Nuance Launches Enhancements to Nina Intelligent Assistant Platform

Nuance made several exciting announcements at the recent SpeechTek event about enhancements to their existing multi-channel customer self-service and intelligent assistant tools and platforms. In a discussion with Greg Pal, Vice President of Marketing, Strategy & Business Development of Nuance’s Enterprise Division, I was able to gain a deeper insight into these newly launched capabilities.

Nuance Experience Studio

Nuance NinaCustomers of Nuance’s Nina intelligent assistant can leverage the new Experience Studio to expand Nina’s capabilities and deploy their self-service assistant across other channels, such as mobile or social. The Experience Studio includes authoring tools for extending Nina’s knowledge repository with industry-specific or company-specific information. Nuance Experience Studio also includes learning models. Customers can construct new learning models that power their intelligent assistant with additional capabilities.

Automation Assist

Nuance has integrated human assistance into the Nina intelligent assistant platform. By selectively engaging live agents to help decipher more complex customer conversations, Automation Assist makes it possible for the self-service platform to be used more broadly with high rates of success. The role of live agents is to help close knowledge or comprehension gaps that stump the automated assistant. Over time, though, the assistant leverages learning models and expanded knowledge bases to close these gaps.

Two-Way SMS with NLU Automation

The unstoppable popularity of SMS text communications, and its expansion into the customer service domain, hasn’t slipped by Nuance unnoticed. In an exciting move, Nuance has added natural language understanding (NLU) capabilities to its real-time two-way SMS solution. Prior to the inclusion of NLU, two-way SMS communications were limited to very simple interactions that had binary “yes/no” responses. But what if a customer responds with “sure thing” or “my Dad is the one who pays the phone bill so you should call him?” NLU can make sense of these free form responses, drastically expanding the use cases where the two-way SMS communication can be applied.

I also spoke to Pal briefly about the Nuance and USAA partnership in creating the recently launched USAA Savings Coach. As I wrote in a previous post, I really like the idea behind the Savings Coach. Pal said that Nuance has been exploring how to evolve virtual assistants into virtual advisors.

I wrote briefly in a previous post about how Nuance and USAA included gamification concepts into the Savings Coach. Pal emphasized that to make a virtual advisor successful, you have to come up with creative ways to proactively engage the user and help them work towards achieving their goals. It’s all about understanding what the customer hopes to accomplish and helping them do that.

Nuance continues to be at the forefront of implementing multi-channel customer self-service technologies. All of their recently launched product additions help to increase the value of the Nina intelligent assistant platform and lower the total cost of ownership for customers.

Facebook M and the Future of Intelligent Assistants

There’s been a lot of press coverage about Facebook’s launch of their new Messenger app virtual assistant M. M is a human-assisted artificial intelligence. Users communicate with it primarily via texting, not by voice. The feature that differentiates Facebook’s M from Apple’s Siri, Google’s Google Now, and Microsoft’s Cortana is the system’s reliance on humans.

Facebook MessengerThe humans who assist the M algorithms are called trainers. They’re given that designation, because their job is to do what the intelligent assistant should be able to do, but doesn’t yet know how to do. Every step the trainers execute to complete a task is recorded and goes into the vast database that will become new fodder for M’s deep learning algorithms. Eventually, when someone asks M to call the DMV to set up an appointment for a driving test, M will know the steps it needs to carry out and everything it needs to say along the way to get the task completed.

M is designed to offer assistance with a broad range of activities, from suggesting and buying the perfect birthday gift for a loved one, to planning and booking a vacation, to making dinner reservations.

In a recent article about M written by Cade Metz for Wired, Facebook’s Alex Lebrun is quoted using the term “bootstrapping.” The human trainers bootstrap M by filling in for the gaps in its knowledgebase. They are only present to help the AI grow smarter, until such time as their assistance is no longer required.

Are you scared yet?

In the Wired interview, Lebrun seems to be saying that you shouldn’t be, because humans will be required into the foreseeable future to aid the AI in learning how to carry out ever more complex tasks. The other comforting factor for those who are nervous about the future of humanity: we don’t know if Lebrun’s plan will work. There’s no certainty that the trainers will follow repeatable, or easily duplicated, steps for many tasks. Recommending a great birthday gift isn’t as easy as learning how to recognize cats after watching a million cat videos.

And who’s to say that DMV employees won’t just hang up when an intelligent assistant calls to schedule your driving test appointment. Unless, that is, the DMV employee is an AI too. Hmmm.

Another question people are asking: is the model of augmenting the AI’s weaknesses with human trainers scalable? If people start to rely on M and the number of users increases, how many trainers will Facebook need to hire? And how many people want the job of intercepting people’s text messages and pretending to be their virtual assistant? Apparently enough people do. A recent article in TechCrunch lists a slew of apps that let users text “expert shoppers” who make recommendations and purchases on a user’s behalf.

The strategy that Facebook is taking with M signals that a couple of trends have staying power. Firstly, texting is becoming ever more entrenched as the preferred way to communicate using mobile devices. Will wearables change that, forcing a shift to voice? That remains to be seen. Secondly, the novelty of mobile personal assistants that can tell us the weather, do math, recite facts from Wikipedia, and offer the occasional joke has passed. People want assistants to do more for them and pure AI isn’t up to the challenge yet.

Will Facebook’s experiment be successful? If it is, the more important question might be: what does it mean for the future of intelligent assistants?

SpeechTek 2015 Day One – Virtual Agent Track

SpeechTek 2015 got off to a fast start with lots of interesting sessions on the Virtual Agents track. There was a panel discussion on the topic of “Virtual Agents for All?” Participants on the panel were Wayne Scholar of GetAbby, Samrat Baul of [24]7, and Jason Mars, Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan. There was general consensus among the panelists that virtual agent technologies (aka intelligent assistants) are going mainstream in a big way.

SpeechTekScholar noted that with the amount of interest in these technologies, GetAbby will be opening up their platform soon so that anyone can leverage the building blocks to create their own virtual agent or avatar. Baul went so far as to assert that every app built today that includes search should have a virtual agent as the “front door.” There was a lot of excitement over the open source intelligent assistant technologies that Mars and his team of graduate students and others are building at Clarity Labs at UM Ann Arbor. The U-M solution is being used to help power several innovative capabilities in banking and other sectors.

The panelists agreed that a next big step is to progress the technology to the point where it can predict customer intent. All of the companies represented on the panel have solutions in the works to enable their intelligent assistants to better understand what customers want and what they’re asking.

Another great presentation came from Eduardo Olvera of Nuance, who provided an in depth look at the ideas behind the recently launched USAA Savings Coach app. When I wrote about the Savings Coach, I didn’t emphasize the gamification aspects of the app. Olvera’s talk focused on strategies for improving user adoption of virtual assistants. He described the clever techniques that Nuance and USAA borrowed from gamification to influence user behavior and drive adoption of the app.

These techniques include rewards, medals, challenges, and notifications. He also touched on the complex methodology behind the timing and process for optimizing each of these techniques. Based on the early successes of the Savings Coach, it seems that it would be worth exploring methods to include gamification into more typical enterprise self-service assistants.

Rebecca Jonsson, Chief Researcher, Artificial Solutions offered a fascinating look at who is using their free Indigo virtual assistant and what types of questions they ask. After mining usage data from their app statistics, Jonsson found that the largest number of users are US-based millennials. The data shows many more interesting insights, such as the fact that the older a user is, the more likely they are to interact with the assistant using voice instead of text. The opposite is true of digital natives.

Later in the afternoon, Roberto Pieraccini and Jonathan Ross from Jibo, Inc. gave an insightful overview of their SDK. Ross demoed the SDK and provided a first hand look at how developers and control Jibo’s animations and its speech processing and responses.

Without a doubt, virtual agents / intelligent assistants have gained substantial momentum within the span of a year. If you want to stay up-to-date with all the latest vendors, trends, and technologies related to intelligent assistants, you should consider attending the Opus Research Intelligent Assistants Conference scheduled for October 13-14 at the W Hotel in New York.

Mycroft – An Open Source AI Platform on Kickstarter

A team of seasoned open source enthusiasts has launched a Kickstarter campaign to build an Amazon Echo rival based on the Raspberry Pi mini-computer and the Ubuntu operating system. The device, called Mycroft, looks like a radio-clock. It will integrate with an as yet undisclosed Speech-to-Text engine and respond to voice commands.

MycroftMycroft is designed to drive devices that speak IoT, including products from Nest, Philips Hue, Iris, and others. It will also connect to YouTube, Netflix, Pandora, and Spotify and be able to control Roku and Chromecast. The real beauty of the platform, though, is that it is open source and completely extensible. In fact, the Mycroft team is targeting the developer community.

Developers and creative types of all stripes can use Mycroft as a springboard to give life to their IoT or other voice-driven ideas. Support for If This Then That (IFTTT) and “Snappy Apps” from Snappy Core Ubuntu means that there will be lots of ways to plug functionality into Mycroft.

The projected retail cost of one Mycroft unit is relatively low at $129. The team hopes that families will opt to have several Mycroft’s throughout the home. Each unit can talk to others in an intercom style.

The Mycroft product is still in the planning stages and so far the team is not quite halfway to their $99K goal on  Kickstarter. So it remains to be seen whether or not Mycroft makes it into production. The concept certainly looks promising. If you’d like to see Mycroft become a reality, there’s time to support the campaign and order an early adopter edition.

Microsoft’s XiaoIce Chatbot – What Does It Mean for Our Future?

XiaoiceMicrosoft’s chatbot experiment XiaoIce (meaning “Little Ice” and pronounced Shao-ice) has garnered lots of
media attention
recently. There’s been speculation about why so many Chinese mobile device and social media users seem enthralled with Cortana’s more chatty “younger sibling.” Microsoft introduced the social conversational assistant exclusively in China over a year ago for Mandarin-speaking users.  It’s interesting that Microsoft chose to introduce the XiaoIce technology in China only.

Technology observers are interested in what capabilities XiaoIce has that make it/her an engaging conversational partner. According to a Microsoft blog post that provides a brief description of XiaoIce, and other news sources, there are at least three features that give XiaoIce a major advantage over your average chatbot. XiaoIce has the ability to:

  • Use Bing to mine real conversations to populate a database of question and answer combinations
  • Apply sentiment analysis tools to understand a person’s mood and adjust her communication style accordingly
  • Remember key facts from past conversations to provide continuity to interactions

Some of the media attention seems to poke fun at XiaoIce’s users. Others are concerned about potential downsides of people developing relationships with virtual assistants. A New York Times article cites MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle’s concerns. Turkle observes that “children are learning that it’s safer to talk to a computer than to another human.”

We may be too quick to write off the value and potential good that applications like XiaoIce can provide. Human beings need reassurance. They need to hear that they’re ok and that someone cares about what they’re going through, even if that someone is a software-driven chatbot.

And yes, people may confide in machines more readily than they would in other humans. Machines aren’t as likely to judge, criticize, or pressure with unwanted advice. Why do people love their pets so much? Unconditional acceptance. Michael Schulson, in an article that covers both the sad fate of HitchBOT and the kerfuffle over XiaoIce, also makes the pet comparison. We anthropomorphize pets, but nobody seems to think this impacts our ability to interact with other humans.

We’ll almost certainly have lots of opportunity to figure out how smart chatbots fit into our lives and what benefits and downsides they bring. XiaoIce may or may not conquer China’s mobile users, but smart conversational chatbots will eventually spread across the globe. 

USAA Launches Savings Coach Mobile Virtual Assistant

Last month USAA launched a free financial intelligent assistant for their members in the form of a Savings Coach app. USAA built the Savings Coach in partnership with Nuance. A press release describes the app as  “one of the first proactive virtual assistants for banking, designed especially to help millennials save money.”

USAA Savings CoachI installed the iOS version of Savings Coach, but I don’t have a USAA bank account so I haven’t been able to try out its full capabilities. Nevertheless, I wanted to write about the app, because I find the concept of a targeted virtual financial advisor pioneering. With the Savings Coach, USAA is differentiating itself by offering its customers something above and beyond just a positive customer self-service experience. They’re providing customers with a very valuable add-on service, which happens to  take advantage of the latest voice-driven intelligent assistant technologies.

When you open the app, a sort of goofy and endearing bald eagle cartoon figure introduces himself as Ace, your savings coach. He tells you about the two secrets to saving money and builds enthusiasm by talking about how he’ll celebrate your successes with you and help you earn fun awards along the way.

Based on information contained in the press release, it seems that after you log into your USAA banking accounts, Ace will provide tips on how you can start building your savings. If you skip a regular or spontaneous purchase, such as foregoing a caramel macchiato, Ace will assist you in transferring the amount you just “saved” from your checking to your savings account. I assume that if you meet savings targets, Ace will applaud you and give you a reward.

The press release indicates that almost 800 18-24 year-olds tried the Savings Coach app out for several months and ended up saving a collective $120K. That’s a lot of skipped macchiatos! The feedback from the young adults who used the app was also positive.

I find the concept of intelligent, proactive, “assistive” customer apps such as this one extremely compelling. The Savings Coach app might not be enough to make someone leave another bank to join USAA. If you’re trying to decide where to put your money, though, knowing that one bank offers this type of helpful service may sway you in their direction. As the predictive and assistive power of virtual assistants grows, we’ll hopefully see many more creative applications such as this one.

The Savings Coach app is available for both the iPhone  and for Android.

Opus Research Publishes Intelligent Assistant Guide for Decision Makers

Opus Research has published an insightful new report on intelligent assistants. The report, called “Decision-Maker’s Guide to Enterprise Intelligent Assistants,” focuses on customer-facing self-service technologies.

Opus Research ReportIn the report, Dan Miller, Opus Research Lead Analyst and Founder, starts out with a brief look at how the intelligent assistant phenomenon is permeating both consumer-facing and enterprise solutions. End users of all types are now accustomed to voice-driven, connected, predictive assistants and expectations for the technology are growing.

Miller goes on to offer deep insights into specific capabilities enterprise intelligent assistants need in order to rise to the top. Miller calls these attributes the “Eight Characteristics of Highly Intelligent Assistants.” Miller’s characteristics of success aren’t what you might expect. Features such as super speech recognition, strong natural language processing, and deep knowledgebases, are all basic operational requirements these days.

What truly distinguishes the most effective intelligent assistant solutions, according to Miller, are other areas of focus and capabilities. You’ll need to read the full report to get the benefit of Miller’s insights. As a teaser, though, I’ll say that Miller expects the most highly effective enterprise assistants to engage customers on their preferred platforms, integrate seamlessly with existing customer support infrastructure, and provide plenty of data to convince management of their effectiveness.

The second half of the report takes a deep dive look at 13 enterprise intelligent assistant providers. Miller examines each vendor’s core technology and intelligent assistant solutions. He cites examples of each provider’s notable customer implementations and lists overall differentiators. Miller also evaluates how each vendor’s solutions rate with regard to some of the characteristics that he deems to be particularly important for success.

The Opus Research report definitely lives up to its name. If you’re in the market for an enterprise intelligent assistant for your company, or even if you’re just starting to research customer self-service options, you don’t want to miss this Decision-Maker’s Guide.

If you’re interested in an up-close and personal look at intelligent assistants, you should also consider attending Opus Research’s Intelligent Assistants Conference, scheduled to take place in New York City from October 13-14, 2015. You’ll hear how real companies have leveraged enterprise intelligent assistants to improve customer experience and achieve key performance indicators.

If you’re already using an enterprise intelligent assistant, there’s still time to enter your solution in the 2nd Annual Intelligent Assistants Awards. If your entry qualifies, you’ll even receive two complimentary passes to the conference.