Conversica’s Virtual Sales Assistant

A few weeks ago, Nellie Bowles of the Guardian wrote an article called With love from my robot: virtual assistants may secretly be emailing you. Bowles focused on technologies from and Clara Labs. Both companies offer virtual meeting coordinators that use natural language understanding and machine learning algorithms to coordinate meeting times by emailing all meeting participants. People who receive the emails often aren’t aware that the email was written by a bot.

ConversicaThis past week I had an opportunity to talk with some of the team from Conversica. Like and Clara, Conversica offers technology that uses a smart virtual assistant to carry out routine tasks using email. In the case of Conversica, the assistant focuses on augmenting a company’s sales staff. The virtual sales assistant contacts leads by composing, sending, and responding to emails.

Conversica has designed the technology to be so personable and effective at crafting emails that most people assume they’re interacting with a human sales associate. The bot never writes the exact same email twice, but varies greetings, phrasing, and other aspects of each communication to give them a spontaneous and genuine feel.

Having a virtual sales assistant offers many benefits to a company that lives or dies on how well they follow up and close leads. In some cases, Conversica’s virtual sales assistant actually has an edge over its human colleagues. The fact is, Conversica’s bot never gets its feelings hurt when a prospect ignores its emails or says no. As a result, the virtual sales assistant is remarkably persistent.

The benefit to the prospect is that, no matter how far they are down in the lead queue, the company genuinely cares about winning their business and follows up with them. If they’re truly interested in the product, the sales bot connects them with a real person and makes sure that person doesn’t drop the ball.

To find out more about the history of Conversica’s company and underlying technology, see my full article Conversica Ramps Up Its Virtual Sales Assistant To Keep Tabs on Prospects on the Opus Research blog.

Teaching Machines to Understand Us Better

Last week I wrote about the importance of emotional intelligence in virtual assistants and robots on the Opus Research blog. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos there was an issue briefing on infusing emotional intelligence into AI. It was a lively and interesting discussion. You can watch a video of the half-hour panel. I’ll summarize my key takeaways.

The panel members were three prominent academics in the field of emotional intelligence in computer technology:

  • Justine Cassell, Associate Dean, Technology, Strategy and Impact, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University, USA
  • Vanessa Evers, Professor of Human Media Interaction, University of Twente, Netherlands
  • Maja Pantic, Professor of Affective and Behavioral Computing, Imperial College London, United Kingdom

TrustMaja Pantic develops technology that enables machines to track areas of the human body that “broadcast” underlying emotions. The technology also seeks to interpret the emotions and feelings of a person based on those inputs.

Vanessa Evans has been working with Pantic on specific projects that apply a machine’s ability to understand emotion and even social context. Evans emphasizes how critical it is for machines to understand social situations in order to interact with human beings effectively.

One interesting project she sites involves an autonomous shuttle vehicle that picks up and delivers people to terminals at Schiphol Airport. They are training the shuttle to recognize family units. It wouldn’t be effective if the shuttle made room for mom and dad and then raced off leaving two screaming children behind. Evans also cites the example of the shuttle going around someone who is taking a photo instead of barging right in front of them. Awareness of social situations is critical if we’re to accept thinking machines into our lives.

Justine Cassell builds virtual humans and her goal is to construct systems that evoke empathy in humans (not to build systems that demonstrate or feel empathy themselves). This is an interesting distinction. Empathy is what makes us human, Cassell notes, and many people have a difficult time feeling empathy or interacting effectively with other people. This is especially true of individuals with autism or even those with high functioning forms of Aspergers.

In Cassell’s work, she has shown that interactions with virtual humans can help people with autism better grasp the cues of emotion that can be so elusive to them under normal conditions. She has also created virtual peers for at-risk children in an educational environment.The virtual peer gets to know the child and develop a rapport, using what Cassell calls “social scaffolding” to improve learning. For example, if a child feels marginalized for speaking a dialect different from that of the teacher, the virtual peer will speak to the child in his or her dialect, but then model how to switch to standard English when interacting with the teacher. The child is taught to stay in touch with her home culture, but also learns how to succeed in the classroom.

Another notable comment by Cassell was that she never builds virtual humans that look too realistic. Her intent is not to fool someone into believing they are interacting with a real human. People need to be aware of the limits of the virtual human, while at the same time allowing the avatar to unconsciously evoke a human response and interaction.

The panel cited other examples from research that illustrate how effective virtual assistants can be in helping humans improve their social interactions. In the future, it may be possible for our intelligent assistants to give us tips on how to interact more effectively with those around us. For example, a smart assistant might buzz us if it senses we’re being too dominant or angry. The technology isn’t quite there yet, but it could be headed in that direction.

Overall the panelists were optimistic about the direction of artificial intelligence. They also expressed optimism in our ability to ensure our future virtual and robotic companions understand us and work with us effectively. It’s not about making artificial intelligence experience human emotion, they emphasized, but about building machines that understand us better.

Talk to Miss Piggy: Chatbots Take Over Brand Promotion

Techcrunch’s Drew Olanoff broke the news a week ago that Miss Piggy of the Muppets was holding live one-on-one chat sessions with anyone on Facebook Messenger. That’s right. Miss Piggy! What’s it like to chat with the Muppets diva extraordinaire?  Well, I didn’t get to experience it firsthand.

Miss PiggyChatting with Miss Piggy was only available for a limited time as a promotion for The Muppets show that airs weekly on ABC. But based on examples in the Techcrunch article, Miss Piggy’s conversation was indicative of her infamous narcissism and over-appreciation of her high school French: along the lines of “Bonjour! This is such an honor… for you. How are vous?”

The Miss Piggy chat was driven by Imperson, a company enabling “bi-directional communication” with fictional characters. Olanoff also cites Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media Labs as participants in the technology, though I’m not exactly sure of their relationship with Imperson.

On their website, Imperson lists both movie release campaigns and immersive brand experiences as use cases that benefit from chat sessions with fictional characters. Potential fans of an upcoming movie can chat with superheroes or creepy zombies and get a little thrill from the authenticity of the interaction. Imperson employs interactive script writers who design dialog that reflects a character’s fictional persona and stays entertaining..

I’ve written in the recent past about the growing popularity of chat as the new customer engagement channel. Not too long ago I wrote about work that Pandorabots is doing with the 2nd largest advertising agency in Japan to enable chat-based surveys on messaging service Line. Japanese brands want to engage consumers on the platform that they like best, which is text-based messaging. Like Imperson, Pandorabots helps to script the dialog that makes those conversations with chatbots fun and engaging.

Christopher Mims coined the term chatvertising in his WSJ article of July 2014. Mims was looking specifically at services on UK’s messaging app Kik that enabled young consumers to interact with branded characters. Mims suggested that messaging apps, and the conversations that occur there, are the future of social media and even of interactive marketing. It seems his observation wasn’t off base.

Opus Research’s Intelligent Assistants Conference NYC Starts Today

The Intelligent Assistants conference NYC (#IACNYC), hosted by Opus Research, begins this afternoon at the W Hotel New York. This is the second conference hosted by Opus that is devoted entirely to exploring the business uses cases and cutting edge technologies comprising what Dan Miller of Opus calls “intelligent assistance.” The conference got off to a great start yesterday evening thanks to a rooftop networking event sponsored by Agentbot.

IACNYCWhat I especially enjoy about the format of this conference is the mix of customer case studies and panel discussions with industry luminaries. It’s extremely helpful and interesting to hear from customers about how they’ve implemented intelligent assistants and how they measure the value they gain from these solutions. You can always learn something from people who are using a product to generate real customer value.

At the same time, it’s great the hear from industry insiders about trends and predictions for the future of the space. Opus does a great job at assembling key players from the industry and making them feel comfortable enough to open up and share remarkable insights. The conference also offers an opportunity to stop by a small gathering of intelligent assistant providers and talk to them one-on-one about their capabilities and solutions.

Later this afternoon, Opus will announce the winners of this year’s Intelligent Assistant Awards (IAA). The judges will talk about the criteria they applied this year for scoring the entrants.

IACNYC is shaping up to be a great event. Check back here after the conference for a wrap up of some of the top takeaways.

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.

H&R Block Impresses with Intelligent Scheduling Assistant

I’ve used H&R Block to prepare my tax returns for the past several years. This year I accidentally ran across their automated appointment scheduling IVR system. I found the system to be remarkably good. In fact, the whole experience is more akin to interacting with an intelligent assistant than with a traditional IVR phone tree.

SchedulingHere’s how it worked. Towards the end of February, I realized it was time for me to make an appointment with my regular tax preparer at the H&R Block local office. I called the number and a pleasant, automated voice said something along the lines of: “it looks like you’re an existing customer and you already have an appointment. Enter the four digits of the year in which you were born.” So I entered the digits and, to my surprise, the voice said that I already had an appointment.

The automated assistant told me the details of my existing appointment and instructed me to press 1 to change it or 2 to cancel it. But it was the perfect day and time. In fact, creepily enough, the appointment was on the exact date and time that I’d been planning to ask for. Apparently I’d made the appointment a year earlier, when I was in the office having my 2013 tax return done.

When I hung up the phone I was so amazed by the experience, I had to tell a colleague about it. Okay, the fact that the appointment was on the exact date and time I wanted was just a coincidence (or good guessing on my part a year earlier), but it sure made the intelligent assistant seem smart!

Fast forward to this week. I was supposed to go to my appointment yesterday evening. However, we had some more bad weather in the area and the local roads were impassable. The H&R Block office was closed. I made a mental note to call and reschedule my appointment. I dreaded the hassle.

Today I received a voicemail. Guess who it was from? Yep, the H&R Block intelligent scheduling assistant. I dialed the number the assistant had provided and it quickly walked me through setting up a new appointment with my regular preparer. It gave me a few options and let me pick the one I liked best. Then it repeated the information for me so that I could enter it into my calendar.

The whole transaction took place without me ever speaking to a human call agent. In fact, I never spoke at all. Except for the fact that I didn’t say anything, since I was an existing customer, the H&R Block scheduling assistant reminded me of the Hyatt Hotels automated reservation system that’s based on technology from Interactions. Both systems work seamlessly and even though you’re intuitively aware that you’re not dealing with real people, you don’t even notice.

I tried to find some information about the technology that powers H&R Block’s system. I located a brief description of an “H&R Block intelligent virtual agent” on the site, but it seems to describe a different intelligent assistant than the one I interacted with.

The whole experience with the H&R Block intelligent scheduling system made me realize that self-service is becoming ever more integrated into our daily lives. Sometimes we don’t even notice it. That, in fact, is exactly how it’s supposed to work.