A New Computing Paradigm: Conversational AI For Consumers And In The Enterprise

Dan Wellers and Till Pieper

Instant messaging apps have taken over. WhatsApp, iMessage, WeChat, Signal, Slack, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat — billions of users exchange information in bite-sized chunks on any or all of these platforms on a daily basis. In fact, as of mid-2015, people were spending more time on messaging apps than on social networks, and as messaging apps become increasingly more sophisticated, this trend shows no sign of reversing.

Messaging platforms have expanded far beyond simply enabling users to send and receive text messages, photos, and videos. Many of them allow users to exchange documents and files, voice memos, location information, and sometimes even cash. And intriguingly, they’re creating new opportunities for us to interact not just with each other, but thanks to chatbots, also with machines.

Rise of the chatbots

A chatbot is a service that, in the most basic form in many implementations today, responds through pre-programmed rules to queries it receives through a messaging interface. Despite the name, a chatbot doesn’t necessarily do any chatting. Rather, you tell it what you want, from ordering products to triggering actions, and it responds accordingly.

Chatbots have been around for decades. Eliza, a program that simulates conversation by asking a handful of questions and repeating parts of the
answers, dates back to 1966. Many of today’s chatbots are Eliza’s direct descendants, operating via messaging channels like SMS, Facebook Messenger, or Slack, and most chatbots today respond using predefined message templates.

Chatbots are ideally suited for delivering services from within a messaging app to its users in a frictionless, personal way. Instead of having to install and launch a separate application, the user can text a chatbot just like a human contact via the messaging app to hail a cab, buy a t-shirt, order a pizza, reserve a conference room, approve a workflow, or submit a vacation request. Some experts even believe that chatbots will replace applications to a certain extent, since a chatbot with limited or no graphical components that operates within a messaging platform is cheaper to build and run than a full-featured app.

As an example, SAP itself is piloting a chatbot at HanaHaus, a café and co-working space operated by SAP in downtown Palo Alto, California. Customers who want to make, extend, or cancel a reservation for a workspace or ask related questions can do so by sending a text message to HanaHaus in casual language such as “I need a desk for two people tomorrow afternoon.” The HanaHaus chatbot responds requesting any other necessary information, like start and end time, and confirms the information before processing the user’s credit card and confirming the reservation in a more frictionless way than the traditional web- or app-based approach.

The machines talk back

As machines get more sophisticated at understanding and responding in natural language, we’re also seeing a massive growth in another type of conversational application: digital assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, and SAP’s upcoming Copilot. These dedicated apps and, in the case of Amazon Echo and Google Home, devices are enabled with natural language processing (NLP) that helps them understand casual speech input by text or voice in more sophisticated ways and in a multitude of functional areas. They can interact with other applications, parse open-ended questions like “how do I get to the nearest subway station?”, “what’s the score for the Giants game?” and “what are the top 3 deals I still need to close this month?”, all through one consistent interface, and they can take action or deliver an answer just as a human assistant would.

These use cases are already materializing right now. Based on the results of a survey of more than 1,000 IT and business professionals, sponsored by SAP and conducted by IDC, 20% of companies are already using virtual digital assistants to interact with employees and/or customers today, and more than two-thirds are actively evaluating or considering it for the next two or three years.

Conversational artificial intelligence

Based on the recent promising advancements in machine learning and AI, we’re going to see an even more dramatic evolution as static, rule-based conversational applications like most of today’s chatbots give way to artificially intelligent solutions. We’ll be able to talk to these applications as if they’re people, and they’ll be able to learn from transactions and user behavior to create and enhance their own understanding to further refine their responses. Using them to access content, request customer service, and make transactions will become seamless. For example, the HanaHaus bot’s logic is already no longer based on pre-defined rules, but rather on its ability to learn from input examples, which enables it to enhance its capabilities the more it is used, just as a human learns a new language.

In other advanced and extended scenarios for conversational AI, a technician might send a photo of a broken part to a parts and maintenance bot, which uses deep learning-based image processing to identify the part, automatically submits a replacement order, and sends the technician the predicted delivery date and installation instructions via the same messaging channel. An employee could also use Slack to submit a leave request to HR’s scheduling bot by sending the message, “I’ll be taking the first week of August off.” Or a customer could use a messaging app to contact a customer service bot with a question about how to use a product and receive a link in seconds to a video of the solution. Systems might also get in touch proactively with users based on certain dynamic criteria or even take action autonomously within given constraints, enabling users to focus on more important tasks.

The conversation continues

At first, chatbots will augment apps. Then they may replace them, until eventually, text and GUI interfaces themselves may well fade away in favor of simply…talking. For a consumer, that might look like telling your phone to make a 7 pm reservation at the nicest restaurant within 10 miles of your home with an available table. In a business context, it might look like asking a tiny black box in your warehouse, “What are the 3 most important orders we need to fulfill this week, and what’s the best way to make them happen?” and getting the optimal response an instant later.

Some other possibilities might include approving multiple workflows from within a messaging app, submitting expense reports by voice interface, reserving conference rooms by SMS, speaking to IoT devices to configure them and retrieve data, and interacting with AR/VR applications without any mouse and keyboard. We’ll say what we need, and the smart systems behind the scenes will apply machine learning to determine what we want, ask questions to clarify and add context, and then deliver on the request, whether that involves running reports, providing customer support, or changing business travel plans on the fly.

Like children, the more we talk to these systems, the smarter they’ll get. Instead of forcing us to learn how they work, they’ll learn how we work and adapt themselves to suit. This isn’t simply the emergence of a new interface. It’s an entirely new paradigm for computing, and in terms of the business world, the end goal is nothing less than enterprise AI.

Download the executive brief Let’s Talk About Conversational Computing

To learn more about how exponential technology will affect business and life, see Digital Futures in the Digitalist Magazine.

For more insight on AI in the enterprise, see Machine Learning: New Companion For Knowledge Workers.

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Digitalist Flash Briefing: Artificial Intelligence Is Anything But Artificial

Bonnie D. Graham

Today’s briefing is a reality check on a long overdue level-setting. These two digital technologies has been bandied about as buzzwords at academic conferences, business strategy sessions, and even public discussions. What’s the problem? They are widely misunderstood, erroneously used interchangeably, and underestimated in their power to disrupt the way businesses operate.

 

  • Amazon Echo or Dot: Enable the “Digitalist” flash briefing skill, and ask Alexa to “play my flash briefings” on every business day.
  • Alexa on a mobile device:
    • Download the Amazon Alexa app: Select Skills, and search “Digitalist”. Then, select Digitalist, and click on the Enable button.
    • Download the Amazon app: Click on the microphone icon and say “Play my flash briefing.”

Find and listen to previous Flash Briefings on Digitalistmag.com.

Read more on today’s topic

 

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About Bonnie D. Graham

Bonnie D. Graham is the creator, producer and host/moderator of 29 Game-Changers Radio series presented by SAP, bringing technology and business strategy thought leadership panel discussions to a global audience via the Business Channel on World Talk Radio. A broadcast journalist with nearly 20 years in media production and hosting, Bonnie has held marketing communications management roles in the business software, financial services, and real estate industries. She calls SAP Radio her "dream job". Listen to Coffee Break with Game-Changers.

How AI And Bots Are Shaping The Banking Experience

Ankita Sahni

India’s most valuable bank, HDFC Bank, is leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) at its core by offering conversational interfaces, such as humanoids and chatbots, to transform the customer experience.

In the six months since she joined HDFC Bank, Eva has had over 1.2 million conversations addressing nearly 2.7 million customer queries. In an environment where the country’s biggest and most competitive banks are jostling to acquire modern customers, Eva is just what the bank’s country head of digital banking, Nitin Chugh, had asked for.

Earlier this month, Eva also became India’s largest banking chatbot.

Indeed. Eva, which stands for electronic virtual assistant, combines natural language processing and artificial intelligence to offer an almost human-like customer experience for users. For now, she works out of the bank’s homepage.

The core idea is to use bots, AI, machine learning (ML), and humanoids to offer a differentiated customer experience. “Convenience is a given, it’s no more a new frontier,” says Chugh.

For Chugh and HDFC Bank, Eva is among several building blocks that will help shape “a sci-fi” future, aligned tightly with the mission of providing a differentiated customer experience. And the ongoing convergence of new technologies, including AI, ML, and so on, is only making this journey more grounded, and not just another hype cycle.

“That’s how it’s happened in the past also. The only good thing is that there are quite a few things happening together now, “says Chugh. “It’s not like there is an AI revolution happening and AR/VR (augmented reality/virtual reality) is not happening, or IoT (Internet of Things) and cloud are not happening. Everything is happening pretty much together. So, because these are happening together, their ability to converge and make a very powerful interface is possible in a short time.”

Eva is not the only conversational interface HFDC Bank is using; it’s also leveraging humanoid robot IRA (intelligent robotic assistant) and the Facebook messenger bot. All are powered by AI and ML and are evolving fast.

Eva engages with HDFC Bank customers across the website and mobile interfaces, providing product details, fees and charges for various products, application processes, branch codes, and a lot more information in few seconds, but IRA is a physical robot guiding customers to relevant counters in a branch.

HDFC Bank worked with partners including Senseforth AI Research and Niki.ai to create them.

“Eva currently handles 50,000-plus semantic variations for thousands of banking-related intents,” says Shridhar Marri, CEO and co-founder of Senseforth. “Eva’s everyday interactions with users go through a conceptual banking knowledge framework, which in turn enhances her ability to field more questions accurately. Eva never sleeps and her learning never stops!”

Digital is not skin deep

“It’s not enough being simply digital anymore,” Chugh says. “It has to go beyond making life convenient for customers and become a launch pad for starting a whole new level of customer experience.”

Indeed, with competitive pressure from new banks on one hand, and the battle to gain the mindshare and engagement of millennial customers on the other, India’s financial services industry is going through a massive disruption. The pace of innovation will determine the winners and the losers. And just being digital isn’t enough anymore.

For Chugh, there are important questions that technology can help answer.

“You can’t tell the customer, ‘You know, now I’m going to give you a convenient way of dealing with me.’ Convenience is a basic necessity now. So what is the next level of experience for the customer? What is the next level of ease for the customer? What is the overall depth of the interactions that the customer is having with the bank, and the overall width of the transactions she is carrying out with the bank?”

For the new experiments to make sense and enhance customer experience, it’s crucial to answer the questions above.

“A lot of people can be digitally active, but sooner or later you realize that they’re just logging in to check their balances,” says Chugh. “And everything else is still the same old way. They’re writing checks, they’re withdrawing cash, they’re doing everything else like they were doing in the old days – to them it seems like that is how banking is. And digital is just a way of accessing my account and getting whatever information I need.”

At the core, these new platforms, powered by ML and AI, have to learn continuously from each customer interaction.

“The learnings are really about things that [Eva] doesn’t know. If a customer asks a question and the bot doesn’t know the answer, it gets recorded and somebody can go and address that. With machine learning, this will evolve and over a period of time will become a full-fledged interface for customers,” says Chugh.

HDFC Bank’s technology team also keeps a close watch and churns out lines of code to ensure the overall interface evolves.

“There is software that allows the bot to capture the information, analyze it, do some bit of self training, which is the easier part, and the rest of it has obviously got to be coded.”

#FailFast

For its part, HDFC Bank is not shying away from new experiments and the failures they bring.

“In our case, we are running around 200 experiments (at any point in time). Out of these, even if half of them fail, it doesn’t make any difference, because there are a hundred that can be scaled up. We do expect a lot of them to fail. So many of these learnings have helped us identify the right bets,” says Chugh.

While the technology experiments have been ahead of business all these years at HDFC Bank, the pace of experimentation has become faster and more intense. “You see this happening a lot more now,” he says.

Platform play

To make a substantial impact, new technology products, especially those powered by AI, need to be part of a broader, sustainable platform strategy.

“The aim is to run these as a completely new channel. I can’t put a number on them, but almost everything that the bank has to offer can be delivered using a conversational UI (user interface) powered by AI on the customer side,” he says.

“We are looking at AI and ML as platform capability … When you need an interface which is unmanned, you need a fairly sophisticated level of intelligence.”

Apart from transforming customer experience, HDFC Bank’s conversational interfaces are also being applied internally.

“Internally, we are already experimenting with quite a bit of those things, from leave processing to ticketing and so on,” he says. “We are trying out several use cases, and that’s why we are taking a platform-based approach.” Over the next few months and years, all this will help offer even more personalized customer experiences. “Now what is likely to happen is that, because we will have some layers of artificial intelligence and new sources of data, the algorithms will become sharper, will become more segmented. We will be able to drive a high level of personalization rather than being at a segment level.”

Sci-fi today, reality tomorrow

Yesterday’s science fiction is today’s reality. And today’s sci-fi will become tomorrow’s mainstream. “Everything we are imagining is ending up being possible and real. I remember when we launched [our] watch banking application two years ago, it looked like sci-fi. How could you talk to your watch, get a few things done?” says Chugh.

So what’s HDFC Bank’s view of sci-fi when it comes to customer experience? “The sci-fi view is that you could … have a face-to-face conversation without moving an inch from wherever you are based. All of that can be made possible through AR/VR, and everything else can be embedded inside using voice or gesture. At the moment, this seems possible,” he says. “In the long term, it is difficult to tell what will happen because something new is going to come up. Maybe you’ll be able to bank from your car, your home, or using other home appliances that are also connected. That’s why I am saying it will be a convergence of IoT, AR/VR, and maybe some other new platform capabilities such as blockchain, other voice interfaces. I would think, in the next 18-24 months, you will see a lot of these sci-fi kind of interfaces.”

Learn more about changing the basis of competition in your industry. Why Machine Learning and Why Now?

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Ankita Sahni

About Ankita Sahni

Ankita Sahni works on branded content and strategic initiatives at FactorDaily. Prior to this she worked with mainstream television channels as a content producer and anchor.

Diving Deep Into Digital Experiences

Kai Goerlich

 

Google Cardboard VR goggles cost US$8
By 2019, immersive solutions
will be adopted in 20% of enterprise businesses
By 2025, the market for immersive hardware and software technology could be $182 billion
In 2017, Lowe’s launched
Holoroom How To VR DIY clinics

Link to Sources


From Dipping a Toe to Fully Immersed

The first wave of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) is here,

using smartphones, glasses, and goggles to place us in the middle of 360-degree digital environments or overlay digital artifacts on the physical world. Prototypes, pilot projects, and first movers have already emerged:

  • Guiding warehouse pickers, cargo loaders, and truck drivers with AR
  • Overlaying constantly updated blueprints, measurements, and other construction data on building sites in real time with AR
  • Building 3D machine prototypes in VR for virtual testing and maintenance planning
  • Exhibiting new appliances and fixtures in a VR mockup of the customer’s home
  • Teaching medicine with AR tools that overlay diagnostics and instructions on patients’ bodies

A Vast Sea of Possibilities

Immersive technologies leapt forward in spring 2017 with the introduction of three new products:

  • Nvidia’s Project Holodeck, which generates shared photorealistic VR environments
  • A cloud-based platform for industrial AR from Lenovo New Vision AR and Wikitude
  • A workspace and headset from Meta that lets users use their hands to interact with AR artifacts

The Truly Digital Workplace

New immersive experiences won’t simply be new tools for existing tasks. They promise to create entirely new ways of working.

VR avatars that look and sound like their owners will soon be able to meet in realistic virtual meeting spaces without requiring users to leave their desks or even their homes. With enough computing power and a smart-enough AI, we could soon let VR avatars act as our proxies while we’re doing other things—and (theoretically) do it well enough that no one can tell the difference.

We’ll need a way to signal when an avatar is being human driven in real time, when it’s on autopilot, and when it’s owned by a bot.


What Is Immersion?

A completely immersive experience that’s indistinguishable from real life is impossible given the current constraints on power, throughput, and battery life.

To make current digital experiences more convincing, we’ll need interactive sensors in objects and materials, more powerful infrastructure to create realistic images, and smarter interfaces to interpret and interact with data.

When everything around us is intelligent and interactive, every environment could have an AR overlay or VR presence, with use cases ranging from gaming to firefighting.

We could see a backlash touting the superiority of the unmediated physical world—but multisensory immersive experiences that we can navigate in 360-degree space will change what we consider “real.”


Download the executive brief Diving Deep Into Digital Experiences.


Read the full article Swimming in the Immersive Digital Experience.

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Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation. Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu

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Blockchain: Thoughts On The "Next Big Thing"

Ross Doherty

Many people associate blockchain with bitcoin—which is, at least for today, the most common application to leverage blockchain. However, when you dig a little deeper and consider the core concepts of blockchain—distribution, consensus achieved by algorithm rather than opinion, cryptographically secure, private—you start to think about how these aspects can be applied, both technically and strategically, to solve problems simple and  complex. Blockchain is neither a product nor a system – instead, it is a concept.

Blockchain applications disrupt conventional thinking and conventional approaches regarding data processing, handling, and storage. First we had the “move to the cloud,” and many were cautious and even frightened of what it meant to move their systems, infrastructure, and data to a platform outside their organization’s four walls. Compound this with blockchain in its purest form—a distributed and possibly shared resource—and you can see why many may be reluctant.

My sentiment, however, is a little different. Creating a solid basis that harnesses the concepts of blockchain with sufficient thought leadership and knowledge-sharing, along with a pragmatic and open-minded approach to problem-solving, can lead to innovative and disruptive outcomes and solid solutions for customers. Blockchain should not be feared, but rather rationalized and demystified, with the goal of making it someday as ubiquitous as the cloud. Blockchain should not be pigeonholed into a specific industry or use case—it is much more that, and it should be much more than that.

Grounding ourselves momentarily, allow me to relay some ideas from both within the enterprise and customers regarding possible use cases for blockchain technology: From placing blockchain at the core of business networks for traceability and auditability, to a way for ordinary people to easily and cheaply post a document as part of a patent process; a way to counteract bootlegging and counterfeiting in commodity supply chain, a way to add an additional layer of security to simple email exchange; from electronic voting systems through to medial record storage. The beauty of blockchain is that its application can scale as big as your imagination allows.

Blockchain is not the staple of the corporate, nor is it limited to grand and expansive development teams—most of the technology is open source, public, and tangible to everyone. It is not an exclusive or expert concept, prohibitive in terms of cost or resource. Blockchain is a new frontier, largely unmined and full of opportunity.

In closing, I invite you to invest some time to do what I did when I first encountered the concept and needed to better understand it. Plug “Blockchain explained simply” (or words to that effect) into your preferred search engine. Find the article that best speaks to you—there are plenty online. Once you get it (and I promise you will) and experience your “eureka!” moment, start to think how blockchain and its concepts might help you solve a business or technical problem.

For more insight on blockchain, see Blockchain’s Value Underestimated, Despite The Hype.

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Ross Doherty

About Ross Doherty

Ross Doherty is a manager in the SAP Innovative Business Solutions team, based in Galway, Ireland. Ross’s team’s focus is in the domain of Business Networks and Innovation. Ross is proud to lead a talented and diverse team of pre-sales, integration, quality management, user assistance and solution architects, and to be serving SAP for almost 4 years.