Interview: The pursuit of loyal chatbots

AI Tech spoke with Alex Bunardzic, senior software developer at Staples, about the future of chatbots and the pursuit of their loyalty.

“People spend a lot of their online time chatting either through SMS, Messenger, or other channels,” says Bunardzic. “Previously, it was the trend that people were spending more time on social media and that’s where businesses were flocking to – you go where the market is. Now, businesses are realising the market is in the chatting channels.”

Chatbots are not a new concept but recent advancements in AI are enabling them to become far more useful. Bunardzic has three categories for chatbots; Non-Stateful, Stateful, and Loyal.

  • Non-Stateful: This category represents the most basic form of chatbots and they can only respond by looking for scripted questions. They do not remember anything of a conversation with a user. Most of the earliest chatbots are non-stateful.

  • Stateful: These chatbots are generally more useful as, for that session at least, they will remember earlier answers from a user. Many of the latest chatbots fall into this category.

  • Loyal: Chatbots in this category represent the most complex and they can remember details of previous conversations with a user even after the chat has closed. These bots are considered the ultimate goal and recent AI developments are helping the industry to reach it.

An example of a non-stateful chatbot could be a weather bot which listens for a city and responds with the forecast. A stateful delivery chatbot may ask for a name and order number to provide tracking information. A loyal car insurance chatbot may keep your details on file and send you a message when you’re due for renewal if it’s found a better deal.

“You can have a really simple chatbot which treats every message as if it’s coming in for the first time — you could be chatting to a bot for hours, and it will not remember your previous messages,” comments Bunardzic. “They’re not very useful and people don’t find them engaging.

“From that, you can move into chatbots which do a little more heavy lifting and remember previous responses in the conversation. Then you can build what I call ‘loyal’ chatbots which actually learn about you, stay with you, and maybe form a relationship over numerous sessions to give a more quality response to queries.”

Moving from non-stateful and stateful chatbots to loyal will also enable them to become reactive and even proactive. For example, with a customer’s postcode details on file, a chatbot for an internet provider could alert specific users of an outage or planned maintenance which impacts them. This, in turn, provides comfort to customers and reduces the number of calls made to service centres which allow more staff to be focused on real issues faster.

“It’s not easy to offer common sense dialogue between machines and people. Machines tend to get confused or go into a loop and become less effective. Right now, to remedy that, a lot of businesses are thinking about escalating quickly to a human operator,” says Bunardzic. “We start a dialogue with a chatbot and when something becomes iffy it will escalate to a human.”

Most readers will have reached an automated voicemail at some point and listened to a multitude of options before thinking “Just connect me to a human operator already!” Then, to make things worse, the dreaded hold music comes in…

When asked if there’s a concern that chatbots which ultimately escalate queries to humans could become a similar source of customer frustration, Bunardzic says: “In a way, it’s worse, because people today [in a text-based chat] feel they can start chatting about anything. If you’re in an automated voice menu they cannot branch off into other topics.”

“In today’s freeform input boxes, we cannot constrain the conversation and often we get really weird or off-topic messages. People can also get frustrated in other ways like if they ask a question that has nothing to do with your service and you fail to respond they can feel betrayed.”

Businesses small and large are waking up to chatbots’ potential. Microsoft has been among the most prominent advocates of chatbots and envisions a future where one can even speak to another. For example, you could ask Microsoft’s virtual assistant, Cortana, to order a pizza and it could bring in the chatbot for Domino’s Pizza to complete and track your order. This is similar to how ‘Skills’ function on Amazon Alexa or ‘Actions’ on Google Home in the voice assistant realm.

“If you are offering services via chat that means you don’t need to worry so much about things such as graphical interfaces and performance,” explains Bunardzic. “If you are building a traditional app, it needs great performance otherwise you will lose your customers.”

Voice assistants, of course, remove the need for a graphical interface altogether.

“We call them ‘screenless interfaces’ because you don’t need a screen to accomplish something,” says Bunardzic. “Especially in situations like when you’re driving, if you can interact with your voice and listen to responses then it’s very desirable and I think will become very popular.”

When asked who he sees as being a current leader in the chatbot space, Bunardzic responds with Berlin-based open source conversational AI company Rasa.

“They are offering a very good platform for machine-learning probabilistic service that’s open source and in my opinion, from what I’ve seen, it gives the best chance to bot builders looking to offer services,” explains Bunardzic. “They offer an opportunity to train up the bots and teach the bot to learn about your contacts and answer various questions.”

“When you ask something like ‘Where is the nearest hospital?’ people can ask that in a variety of ways and the challenge sometimes with a bot is that it’s too rigid and can only understand certain ways of saying it. Rasa allows us to teach a bot how to respond to various ways of saying it and I think it’s very promising.”

Back at Staples, where Bunardzic currently works as a senior developer, the company is looking at using chatbots to help with the diverse work of the organisation. He notes there are many smaller teams within Staples and the manpower is not scalable so customers can end up being left on hold for a long time and getting frustrated, or emails not responded to for days.

Bunardzic and his team are being tasked to automate services so that chatbots can respond immediately in many cases to alleviate customer frustration. Some, of course, will need to be escalated to a human but these queries should be answered quicker due to others being automated.

The excitement around chatbots is growing, and our chat with Bunardzic confirms it’s for good reason.

You can hear from Alex Bunardzic at AI Expo North America at the Santa Clara Convention Center being held November 29th – 30th. He will be giving the ‘Chatbots – From Chat To Full-Serve Experience’ talk and will also be talking on the panel ‘The Realities of Bot & VA development & implementation’. Latest from the homepage

IoT economics ‘increasingly compelling’, argues Verizon in new report

A new market research report titled “State of the Market: Internet of Things 2017” published by Verizon, states that IoT is at the core of digital transformation in 2017, 73% of executives either researching or currently deploying the technology.

There are 8.4 billion connected devices in use today, up 31% from 2016, the study adds.

The report suggests that the economics of IoT are increasingly compelling and the B2B space will benefit first, generating nearly 70% of potential value enabled by IoT. It highlights four key concerns that stand out for over 50% of business executives when exploring IoT, they are: standards, security, interoperability and cost. It is due to these qualms, along with apprehension around scalability and simplicity, businesses are reluctant from fully deploying IoT, with many still in proof-of-concept or pilot phase.

The report also highlights issues such as simplicity and integration, cost, and security, on how businesses should be thinking about IoT moving forward and addresses many of the concerns expressed by executives surveyed.

IoT platforms, such as Verizon’s ThingSpace, will become even more seamless and streamline the deployment of applications, giving developers simplified access to new tools and resources for IoT use cases, the report noted. New CAT-M1 technology and chipsets will reduce costs of connectivity and enable more widespread adoption by businesses large and small, while securely collecting, analysing and integrating data will continue to be at the forefront, with solutions like Verizon’s Security Credentialing, (based on a standard adopted by the GSMA) and software-defined perimeter services, which help protect at the platform, network and device level. Latest from the homepage

UK negotiates leniency from the EU’s stifling GDPR

The UK government has published a draft of its Data Protection Bill which brings the EU’s controversial GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) into UK law but provides leniency in some important areas.

In an editorial last month, IoT News highlighted the danger of GDPR regulations holding back startups which rely on data collection. We spoke to Peter Wright, solicitor and managing director of Digital Law UK, who had similar concerns.

“If you’re dealing with large amounts of big data, so you could develop and build an AI, there’s an argument within the regulation that you will need a DPO (Data Protection Officer) in place,” said Wright.

“You’d then have to demonstrate regulatory compliance – with immense penalties if you happen to get this stuff wrong in terms of a €20 million fine, or four percent of your global turnover – and it’s measures like this which have a chilling effect on entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity.”

The draft Data Protection Bill sets out how GDPR is planned to be implemented; subject to scrutiny by the House of Lords and House of Commons.

Keeping the best of GDPR

GDPR brings in some vital protections for consumers in the modern world. One measure enables users to request social networks to delete anything posted before the age of 18 to help ensure people are not haunted by anything they did in their less mature years.

“Right to be forgotten” will also be expanded. Currently, a user can put forward a request for data to be erased if it causes significant distress. Under GDPR, a user will also be able to request data to be erased if the information is outdated or irrelevant.

Companies will also need to sign users up to services with the strictest privacy settings by default. This will ensure users only share data they are explicitly comfortable with doing so by opt-ins. Anyone under 13 will require the consent of parents or legal guardians to sign up.

Rather than be tied into using a particular service, GDPR will allow for “data portability” so users can move their data from one to another. How this will be implemented, however, isn’t clear.

To protect user privacy and keep them informed; any breach of data must be reported to the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office within 72 hours. Significant penalties will be incurred for a failure to do so, or for the general poor handling of user data.

Axeing the worst of GDPR

Interestingly, the UK government claims to have negotiated “exemptions from the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation to create a proportionate data protection regime which is right for Britain.”

This doesn’t fit in with the EU’s standard “one-size-fits-all” approach to member states. Other members are sure to demand similar exemptions as the stricter regulatory environment will otherwise make them less competitive.

“There are circumstances where the processing of data is vital for our economy, our democracy and to protect us against illegality,” comments Matt Hancock, the UK Minister of State for Digital. “Today, as we publish the Data Protection Bill, I am offering assurances to both the public and private sector that we are protecting this important work.”

In the face of Brexit, the exemptions mark a particularly surprising development. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome move as it axes most of the regulations we’ve raised concerns about in the past.

The bill will include exemptions for data processing in the following areas:

  • Processing of personal data by journalists for freedom of expression and to expose wrongdoing is to be safeguarded.

  • Scientific and historical research organisations such as museums and universities will be exempt from certain obligations which would impair their core functions.

  • National bodies responsible for the fight against doping in sport will continue to be able to process data to catch drug cheats.

  • In the financial services sector, the pricing of risk or data processing done on suspicion of terrorist financing or money laundering will be protected.

  • Where it is justified, the Bill will allow the processing of sensitive and criminal conviction data without consent, including to allow employers to fulfill obligations of employment law.

Prior tailored exemptions that were implemented as part of the Data Protection Act 1998 will be carried over into the new law as they have “worked well” according to the UK government.

The UK is seen as a hotbed for AI and has attracted global investment such as Google’s acquisition of Cambridge-based DeepMind. The government is pumping £16 million into AI and robotic technologies through its Innovate UK initiative. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, meanwhile, provides financial support for UK businesses working on ‘cutting-edge’ technology.

It’s good to see the UK government’s plans to protect consumers with the best aspects of GDPR but axe its worst bits to ensure innovative businesses can flourish. We hope this continues and the new powers to bypass Parliament the government has given itself as part of the “Great Repeal Bill” this week are not abused.

What are your thoughts on the Data Protection Bill draft? Let us know in the comments. Latest from the homepage

Transformers: Assessing the connected car revolution – and what is coming next

In recent years, developments in the automotive industry combined with trends in transportation have evolved the car from an underutilised machine that delivers its owner from A to B, to a dynamic hub capable of delivering a variety of services to a wide variety of passengers.

This is similar to the way that Apple’s arrival in the world of mobile telephony disrupted the status quo for handset OEMs and, in doing so, transformed an entire industry. The arrival of Tesla, Google and, of course, Apple in the automotive world has set alarm bells ringing in the boardrooms of the major automakers around the world. Which is why manufacturers – with the help of the Internet of Things (IoT) – are innovating and transforming their businesses back into the growth industry inspired by Henry Ford. And this has led us to a modern day automotive revolution.

Converging roadmaps

Two of the most interesting developments in automotives revolve around the advent of affordable ride sharing services (particularly in metropolitan areas) such as Uber and Lyft and the autonomous vehicle. These two disciplines are both distinct, but overlapping.

Car ownership among millennials has been declining for some time for a whole host of reasons. But the chief driver was ushered in by the arrival of the smartphone. Jeremy Rifkin, author and economist, stated that, “25 years from now, car sharing will be the norm, and car ownership an anomaly.” Car sharing services are changing how people think about car ownership. Car ownership costs the average Londoner £250 per month and yet they spend less than half an hour per day using it. And you can guarantee most of that half hour will be spent sitting in traffic jams.

The majority of the time, a personal vehicle is parked. In the sharing economy, a connected car could broadcast itself as being available for use at various times of day. For example, the owner of an electric BMW drives into work in Frankfurt at 7am. They need to take the vehicle back home at 4pm. This vehicle is now available from 8am (charging time one hour) till 3 pm (to charge again for use at 4pm). It broadcasts its availability with a range that it can be driven for a fee. IoT connectivity is key to enable that vehicle to be remotely opened by the person reserving the car, to track where the car is and provide reminders about return time, etc. Now that car becomes a source of potential revenue for its owner, just like Airbnb for dwellings.

The transportation industry is being disrupted by ride sharing services, and it is adapting by bringing IoT into the vehicle to enable a host of new services of its own. Automakers, as well as the likes of technology companies such as Uber, Google and Apple, are already looking at what it takes to get to autonomous. In India, its estimated that 20% of new vehicle sales will go to companies like Ola and Uber by 2020, in a market with increasing vehicle sales. The OEMs are actively getting into this space as well – GM with Maven and Daimler with Car2Go. These are all playing a role in car ownership and one’s driving experience.

Autonomous vehicles will create tremendous amounts of free time for commuters. That 60 minute journey to the office becomes a time to catch up on work or domestic admin, or the latest TV series. Autonomous cars also promise to make our journeys safer and, thanks to superior route planning, faster. But making truly autonomous cars a mass market reality will take years according to most experts – though often the water is muddied by how people choose to define ‘autonomous’.

Volvo, Daimler, GM, are all preparing to deploy small fleets in controlled environments. This is not a technology that can be tested in a laboratory. We need to drive in real world conditions to see how the systems perform.

Once truly autonomous vehicle technology becomes a reality, that technology will be blended with ride sharing. This will deliver unprecedented levels of disruption to the car industry.

The green light

The two converging developments in the automotive industry of ride sharing and the autonomous vehicle are supported by, but not reliant upon, the push to go green. This represents an entire subset of the automotive revolution and is indirectly pushing an autonomous future. Uptake of electric cars is slow at present though since they’re are relatively expensive. But the costs are coming down. Furthermore, technical hurdles such as range are improving, in addition to recharging times. Meanwhile, greater supporting infrastructure is slowly but surely being rolled out.

Tesla and other EV companies have the advantage of being “new” companies with no legacy technologies, thinking or processes. They are able to apply the latest technology from various industries and disrupt the traditional OEM business. So they have been able to apply the latest technologies to get their cars to be autonomous.

The push by Electric Vehicle OEMs to attain Autonomous gets put on the “Green bandwagon” since they are environmentally better, due to their non-dependence on fossil fuels.

Ride-sharing also reduces wasted trips, parking and other unnecessary costs within the car transportation eco-system, by allowing cars to be used more. No more driving around to find parking – which saves time and space.

Navigating connectivity in the here and now

In Europe, the basic services that will first come to market due to eCall will be safety and security that will be triggered with automatic crash notification. This is not new in other markets like North America, but a majority of the OEMs in Europe are yet to launch eCall. Beyond consumer applications, there are also safety implications for fleet drivers, with new services that help prevent them from falling asleep while driving. Electronic log books will keep track of the number of hours a fleet driver has been awake and driving and provide alerts when it is time to rest, helping to prevent potential accidents due to drowsy driving.

Over-the-air software/firmware updates are going to play a crucial role in a world where cars are digitally controlled. A connected car designed with upgradeable electronic component units will bring forth a revolution on what is considered a new car versus a new-feature car. OEMs will be able to update software features on the vehicle on a regular basis. New age OEMs treat cars like another IT asset which needs the latest software updates to be delivered automatically. This will allow for cars to be kept fresh for much longer.

Security as a service is also a key consideration. There are several mechanisms in place to protect against manipulations/hacking of connected cars, as connected car are more vulnerable than their non-connected counterparts. Some steps that can be taken include restricting the connections to and from the vehicle to trusted end-points, ensuring core vehicle operations are not corruptible without authentication, encryption of data, automatic anomaly detection and remediation, and many other well-known security applications and practices already used in the IT world.

More than a machine

In some respects, the connected car has very much arrived. However, we’re years from a time when car ownership will disappear to be replaced by self-driving vehicles picking up and dropping off passengers in and around our cities. This is a utopian vision for some, but a dystopian nightmare for others. It could well be a generational issue. For Generation X and the Baby Boomers cars represent freedom. They’re more than just a machine. People have emotional bonds with their cars, they modify and customise the look and the feel, they sometimes give them names. The Model T which helped kicked off the revolution was available in any colour as long as it was black, but once people got their hands on affordable vehicles, they wanted them to look and perform differently from the one their neighbour owned.

But millennials, at least in bigger cities, are demonstrating that car ownership is not a guaranteed aspiration. Once autonomous cars do arrive, there will be less of a demand in terms of what the car looks like. The post-millennial generation are starting to come of age and the world they live in will be much the same as that of their predecessors. Things could be markedly different for Gen Alpha though (those born after 2011). The transformation for this group has the potential to be akin to the move from horse drawn carriages to cars.

In this brave new world, the revenue for automakers will not be derived solely from the margin on the finished product. Thanks to connectivity, the automaker has a connection to the customer way beyond the point of sale, and the ability to continuously improve the driving experience over time. Latest from the homepage

Moving AI into the testing sphere: TestPlant announces new product suite

Software business provider TestPlant has announced the launch of its digital automation intelligence testing suite, aiming to help organisations keep up with developmental challenges through artificial intelligence (AI).

The suite “accurately verifies, predicts and monitors the user experience and customer success of an application before and after each release, shifting testing from a compliance activity to a revenue generating profit centre focused on customer satisfaction, conversion, adoption, and retention,” in the words of the company.

The AI side comes in through Eggplant AI – Eggplant being the company’s primary software testing product – which aims to use artificial intelligence, machine learning and analytics to predict where quality issues are most likely to occur and help collate data for teams to resolve it quicker. It works across the range of Eggplant products, including among others Eggplant Manager to orchestrate text execution, and Eggplant Integration, to integrate with the rest of an organisation’s DevOps infrastructure.

“The challenge in testing is that it’s always been about ‘does the code work?’, ‘is there a bug at line three?’ and so on… but applications are no longer successful just about that – they’re successful if they absolutely delight their users, and they capture the imagination,” said Dr. John Bates, CEO of TestPlant. “It’s amazing how disposable these things are, so you really want to delight your customers. It’s about testing now through the eyes of the user.”

“It’s broadening automation from not just automated testing and execution, but also applying AI and analytics to be able to help with the generation of the test cases themselves by analysing the system,” Bates added.

Speaking to this publication earlier this month, Bates discussed the opportunities for AI in the testing industry. “Imagine how better our applications are going to be if you’ve got humans focused on sending armies of algorithms out to zero in on particular places and make recommendations about improving the human experiences, removing bugs, and performance,” he said.

The product move comes amidst survey results, issued by TestPlant and conducted by Kickstand, which find that of 600 app development respondents, 91% said increased user expectations were one of their primary concerns. Latest from the homepage