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Bots with good chat

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Chatbots are revolutionising the way customers interact with services and brands. Rather than fill in a form, we’re now simply asked to strike up a conversation.

It’s a growth area driven by advancements in AI, but also the domination of mobile messengers. Recent figures put monthly unique users of WhatsApp at 1.3 billion, Facebook Messenger at 1.2 billion and WeChat (the market leader in China) at 889 million.

From ordering a pizza to accessing a boarding pass for a flight, it’s never been easier to create sophisticated bots which have the ability to take away much of the strain on human resources.

Tools from Amazon and Facebook have made it possible to create a chatbot in a matter of days, making them attractive to small and large businesses alike.

The proliferation of chatbots means you’d be hard-pressed to find an industry which isn’t making use of the technology in some way.

Skynet

Alaska Airlines debuted its Ask Jenn chatbot back in 2008. Jenn was the airline’s solution to a lack of search capability, and at the time was the only virtual assistant in operation by the US airline industry.

As Jenn nears 10 years of service, many other chatbots are now entering the market.

On 30 March 2016, Facebook announced that KLM was its first airline partner for Messenger. Directly from Messenger, users are able to receive their KLM flight confirmation message, access their KLM boarding pass, receive check-in reminders, get flight status updates, and have customer service questions answered.

Many others airlines, from Icelandair to British Airways have now introduced chatbots of varying capabilities. There’s little doubt others will follow suit.

Banking on bots

In the world of finance and banking, chatbots are already quite established. HSBC has Amy, a virtual assistant which it describes as part of its customer servicing platform. Amy is available around the clock to deal with customer inquiries.

The goal is to integrate Amy into customer live chat, allowing a human support agent to step in when a query is too complex for the bot to answer. Amy is also designed to learn and enrich its knowledge, meaning less and less human intervention should be needed.

Bank of America announced Erica, its voice and text chatbot back in 2016, with a planned launch for later this year.

Erica’s developers are allowing the bot time to make use of its AI in order to learn how to interact with customers. The aim is to launch at a point where users recognise a real benefit, not just a few novel, but throwaway, tricks.

Hari Gopalkrishnan is a technology executive at Bank of America. He said:  “One thing we want to avoid is getting out there with parlour tricks. You could go out with a launch that answers three questions and the rest of it is all a joke.

“It’s got to be a collection of things the customer wants that gets packaged up so they're like, ‘Oh, it's worth talking to this thing, because it doesn't just do three things, it does 46 things.’”

Erica will begin life as a digital assistant to help the bank’s customers navigate its app. The bot is also being trained to make financial recommendations to customers, such as identifying ways in which they could save money.

One more thing. You might think Erica is female, but the bot is actually intended to be gender agnostic. The name actually comes from the final letters of the bank’s name. Am-erica. Hands up if you’d already figured that out.

Bed & Breakfast… and Bots

The concierge is one of the hotel industry’s most iconic roles, but it’s a profession under threat from AI chatbots.

Holiday Inn Osaka Namba now offers guests a virtual concierge service via a chatbot called Bebot. This is a first for a major hotel chain in Japan.

Bebot was created by Bespoke Inc, which aims to improve the hotel’s guest experience.

A spokesperson said: “It is designed to empower guests through instant, real-time assistance such as exclusive recommendations for both popular and little-known sights in the area, answering questions only hotel staff would know about, or even making restaurant bookings.”

Like HSBC’s Amy, humans are ready to step in should Bebot be unable to provide an answer.

In March of 2016 Hilton and IBM joined forces to create a robot concierge named Connie, available to assist guests in the reception of the Hilton McLean in Virginia.

It’s a great use of IBM’s Watson AI platform, but lacks the always-present benefits chatbots such as Bebot provide to users. Perhaps we’ll see Connie’s AI backend powering a chatbot for Hilton sometime soon.

That’s not all. Not by a long bot

These are just three of the industries making use of chatbots. You’ll also find the likes of CNN, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian striking up virtual conversations with their readers in a way to deliver content that interests them.

Dominos and Starbucks are enabling customers to place orders using their chatbots, removing the need to speak to a person or fill in an online form. There’s no excuse for Starbucks getting your name wrong now.

TfL (Transport for London) can now assist commuters with the TFL TravelBot launched for Facebook Messenger in June. Using everyday conversational language, you can ask for information about your journey, find out when the next bus is set to arrive and even request a map.

It’s not all about customer service though. Games are getting in on the act, too.

24 Legacy: The Game, is an interactive experience designed to imitate the experience of being part of the TV show’s Counter Terrorist Unit by turning Facebook Messenger into the phone of an agent.

And finally. 14-year-old student Alec Jones from British Columbia created Christopher Bot, a homework reminder built on the Messenger platform. It’s a fantastic example of using the capabilities of chatbots to solve a problem.

Robots in disguise

Facebook announced on July 27 that its Messenger Platform 2.1 includes built-in natural language processing and the ability to enable conversations to be easily transitioned from bot to human agents.

Businesses will have the capability to hand off tasks such as customer onboarding and responding to FAQ style questioning to bots. Should the conversation become more complex it will be straightforward to switch out the bot for a real person.

There’s no doubt that chatbots, be they textual or voice, are becoming increasingly helpful as AI capabilities improve.

But for now it seems there’s a balance to be struck between humans and AI.