From search and surf to a conversational paradigm

Andy Kurtzig · December 8, 2017 · Short URL:

Virtual assistants will become our copilots throughout the day

In a study out of the University of Pennsylvania, a linguist found that on average one out of every 60 words uttered is “um” or “uh.” In a world where our interactions with technology are fully conversational, computers have to understand people’s language imperfections and word-fumbles.

We’re not there yet. But we are in the midst of a fascinating paradigm shift moving humanity toward greater intimacy with technology. Today we’re using our voices instead of our fingers to search for things, and our mode of interaction is moving from one-way to bi-directional, as we start having conversations with our devices.

In this piece, I’ll take a look at how conversational interfaces are enabling a new kind of reliance on technology as these virtual assistants become a guide at our side at all times; how these new modes are changing the way we shop, schedule and manage our time, and experience brands. Importantly, I’ll explore why during these early days of this paradigm shift, mega brands see the implementation of chatbots and assistants as “future-proofing” their service.

Technology copilot

Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, and virtual assistants, such as Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and Google Assistant, have our five-year-olds turning on our lights, managing room temperatures, and hearing new jokes just with a few spoken words. And it’s just the beginning.

In 2017, 35.6 million Americans are expected to use a voice-activated virtual assistant device at least once a month, up 128 percent from last year, according to eMarketer. The same report shows that nearly twice as many Americans are using assistants on their mobile device at least once a month.

Conversational interfaces will certainly modify the way we search the web. More importantly, however, they will create new ways to access the web and enable new personalized services.

“The way I like to think about it is -- with the desktop, you sit down for a session and spend a significant amount of time interacting with the device, from writing an email to working on a project. Interactions with a mobile phone are often related to dead time: I’m waiting in a line at the store, so I pull my phone out and check my social feed,” said Gummi Hafsteinsson, Product Management Director at Google. “With the conversational interface, I think the power is going to come through what I consider the ‘Don’t interrupt me’ kind of interaction. I’m concentrating on one thing so I need a copilot to facilitate another interaction.”

Hafsteinsson also sees people interacting with virtual assistants more routinely. And those interactions will be even “shorter and quicker to the point,” he predicts. “Ok Google, play happy music,” is probably one terse request often made, for example.

In another instance, if you’re cooking and you need the next step in a recipe, rather than stopping to read a cookbook, phone, tablet or laptop, you can simply ask what to do next and your AI assistant (or copilot) will tell you.

“I think the power comes from having access to these conversational agents throughout the day, so it becomes natural to ask for things when I need them,” said Hafsteinsson. “This is not going to replace the mobile phone or desktop computer, it’s going to allow us to enable even more interactions that will make individuals more productive.”

Interestingly enough, if you are cooking and ask Google Assistant for a recipe, for say “artichoke pizza,” the Assistant will actually use Google search to come up with the No. 1 ranked recipe, which happens to be a recipe from the site: Sallysbakingaddiction. This is an interesting intersection of web search and conversational requests.  

Changing consumer experience with brands

Given the ease and convenience of using AI-driven technology for consumers, it’s no surprise that big brands are already using chatbots and assistants to enhance their interactions with customers.  

“We’ve been on a multi-year transformation and leaning in towards a customer-first experience across our digital and live interactions,” said Miguel Quiroga, VP of Digital & Innovation at Verizon Fios. “We deployed a Facebook Messenger-based chatbot earlier this year to innovate, learn and co-create with our customers, and to understand how our business could evolve to meet that type of interaction mode.”

For Phil Gray, EVP of Corporate Development at Interactions, which has been making intelligent virtual assistants for large corporations, such as Hyatt and Humana, since 2004, social media networks are becoming an important way that their chatbots interact with consumers

“One of the growing ways that consumers interact with our intelligent assistant is via social media networks. If someone posts something directly on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, our AI virtual assistant can respond instantly.   We now have the ability to ingest vast amounts of social data. We then classify and categorize the data for the brands we’re working with and determine if it’s something relevant that they should be responding to,” said Gray. “We automatically generate a natural language response through AI. But there is also social customer service agents who supervises the conversation and sometimes customizes the replies. This enables the brands to be highly efficient while still responding in a personalized way.”

Personalization is not lost on Verizon’s Quiroga, who noted that brands have to incorporate this technology in a way that makes customers feel comfortable with the technology. To that end, Verizon’s initial rollout of chatbots was applied to simply help customers find entertainment content.

“Our entrance to a conversational UI was focused on the entertainment experience, trying to answer ‘What’s on tonight?’ AI and personalization can help solve a common household problem: ‘How can I wade through this smorgasbord of content to find something I actually want to watch?’  This was our first foray into a personalized, chat-focused user experience and we’ve been evolving it across our business based on how customers use it,” said Quiroga.

For Google, the focus has been to help users accomplish a task.

“One core benefit of the Assistant is the ability to help users get things done—from shopping to making dinner reservations and booking travel services, all of which are currently available on the Assistant and being used by our users,” said Hafsteinsson. “I expect these services to grow as assistants proliferate the market and customers get more accustomed to these assistant-enabled interactions.”

The core of AI-first and the importance of future proofing

Conversational platforms are becoming so ubiquitous that companies have to take them seriously. Look at what happened to Microsoft circa the early 2000s: it didn’t see the writing on the wall with the smartphone revolution and wound up trying to play catch up in a space already dominated by Apple. RIP, Windows Phone. You never stood a chance.

To this end, the conversational interface via chatbots is an integral part of Google’s AI strategy.

“Look at Sundar’s presentations at the last couple of IOs and the Made by Google event: the Assistant is the continuous thread across a lot of these conversations,” said Google’s Hafsteinsson, referring to Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

“If you think about how we talk about ‘AI first’ being this new paradigm, the Assistant is the core tenet of an ‘AI first’ technology. The Assistant demonstrates the commitment Google has made to putting AI first.  Whether the Assistant is finding information or services or helping you get things done, it is core to Google’s DNA,” said Hafsteinsson, noting that to date, Google does not have a business model for its Assistant.

Verizon’s Quiroga also sees chatbots and assistants as core to its business. In his words, integrating these interfaces is a form of “future-proofing.”  

“For a brand like ours, we have to be prepared to pivot rapidly to adjust to the changing landscape of experiences, customer needs, and technology,” Quiroga said. “We are future-proofing by ensuring that we are where our customers are increasingly interacting with us whether that be voice, text, or elsewhere.”

Verizon and Google aren’t the only ones that see virtual assistants as essential to their company’s relationship with their customers. Companies with a large volume of customer interactions are the companies that are quickest to adopt these new technologies as well, said Interaction’s Gray.

“Large communication companies—consumer electronics and retailers with tens of millions to hundreds of millions of interactions—are the fastest to embrace this new technology because they can monetize the development pretty quickly,” said Gray. “Banking has been a little mixed because they have had pretty high adoption using some simple technologies; now I think you’re starting to see that banks are realizing that the nature of the consumer relationship is changing, so you’re seeing some good traction there as well. We even have customers in the utility space. You would think that they might not be a leader in trying to drive these types of technologies but because they sell a commodity service, improving the customer experience is very important to them.”

Man or machine?

Technology is evolving so fast these days, it may be hard to keep up. But it is easier to contemplate if you consider that every piece of new technology builds upon what came before and enables us to be more productive in more ways. The mobile device took the internet from being accessed from a sit-down position (researching and finding information) to wherever we are (on-demand car services and social feeds to stay connected). Now conversational platforms are making our interactions more routine, and the productivity we gain from these interactions is exponential.

It’s no wonder that these interfaces are indispensable to major brands. Google may not be currently monetizing its Assistant (or at least not publicly  sharing its model), but these interfaces will certainly be revenue-generating machines. A recent Gartner report showed that brands that adopt virtual assistants will increase digital commerce revenue by 30 percent by 2021, partly because these AI-driven assistants are always on, always available to respond to requests,  always learning from the new data, and always getting smarter.

In 1993, a cartoon became famous for its caption, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Increasingly, it will be “nobody knows you’re a machine.”  

(Image source: cbc)

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Andy Kurtzig

CEO of JustAnswer; Investor in Vator Investment Club (VIC)

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