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.

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