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ARE YOU TALKING TO ROBOTS?

Wed Mar 3 2020 Michael McQueen

Decades ago, the prospect of talking to someone on the other side of the world was unimaginable. Doing business with them, regularly coordinating with them and bridging the geographic and linguistic distance between you and them was even more incomprehensible. Now it is the norm.

While communication has evolved rapidly in recent decades with the advent of the mobile phone, fax machines, the internet, email and social media, the years to come will likely see communication become automated in some very significant ways.

Despite being what we consider one of our most human activities, communication is quickly being disrupted by the influence of automation.

Communicating fluidly with robots is soon to be a very normal and everyday activity that everyone, not just the tech gurus of Silicon Valley, will engage with.

Prime examples of this, Amazon’s Alexa-enabled Echo, along with Google Home and, most recently, Apple’s HomePod, have transformed the ways we interact with and rely upon technology in our day-to-day lives.[1]

Amazon’s Alexa is gaining knowledge at a rapid rate, making it ever more useful, reliable and easy to interact with. As of June 2017, the voice assistant had gained more than 14,000 ‘skills’.[2]

‘Hey Siri’ and ‘Alexa!’ have quickly woven themselves into the everyday language of everyday people.

While many of us are increasingly comfortable speaking to smart speakers in our homes, the reality is that you and I have been communicating with and relying on robots conversationally for a while now without even knowing it. 

I recently presented at a conference where the speaker following me began his address by mirroring his computer monitor with the big screen, logging in to a chat portal and starting an interaction with a call-centre customer service assistant named Kate. After answering a series of Kate’s chatty questions about the speaker’s age, health status and geographic location, Kate came up with a range of insurance product options that would be a good fit for him. The speaker selected one of the quotes and then progressed to the policy application process.

Watching this in real time, I was impressed with how seamless the quote process was. I was floored to discover that Kate didn’t actually exist – she was a computer-generated service assistant otherwise known as a ‘chatbot’.

If you’ve interacted with any large company online or even over the phone in recent months, there is every chance you were actually speaking with a chatbot like Kate rather than a real person. 

A few years ago, technology research leader Gartner estimated that by this year AI-powered chatbots will be responsible for a full 85 per cent of customer service interactions.[3] Forbes recently predicted that AI use in customer service will increase by 143% by late 2020.[4] It’s easy to see why companies are rushing to implement this automated customer service technology – after all, it costs a fraction of what human service assistants do. It is also far more efficient.

According to Juniper Research, healthcare and banking providers using chatbots are seeing average service interactions being cut by just over four minutes per enquiry – equating to average cost savings in the range of $0.50 to $0.70 per interaction. The research’s author, Lauren Foye, suggests, ‘As Artificial Intelligence advances, reducing reliance on human representatives undoubtedly spells job losses.’[5]

While much of the emphasis in using AI-powered chatbots has centred on companies employing this technology to engage with customers, something very significant occurred at a recent Google event. For the first time, Google demonstrated what happens when chatbots actually become the customer. 

This new technology, Google Duplex, allows customers to instruct their Google Assistant to make phone calls on their behalf and engage with human beings in an uncannily lifelike manner. Live on stage at the 2018 Google I/O conference, a demonstration was given of the Google Assistant calling a salon to book a haircut – even throwing in the odd ‘mmhmm’ for realism.[6]

While the ability of Google Duplex to respond to the nuances and complexities of human interaction was impressive, what was more striking was how increasingly difficult it is to tell if you are actually speaking to a computer rather than a human being. 

In recent years we have seen the capability and ubiquity of robots skyrocket, involving themselves in the day-to-day life and functions of society. While much of this has been limited to the already ‘robotic’ activities of humans, like admin and factory labour, now we are rapidly seeing it become normal in the most human of activities we engage with.

In 1950, the famed computer scientist Alan Turing proposed that if one-third of a group of humans could not distinguish a machine conversation from a human one, that would mean the machine doing the conversing is capable of ‘thinking’ – a notion that became known as the Turing Test.[7] If one thing is clear, it’s that chatbots have seen technology pass the Turing Test with flying colours in recent years, and the potential of what lies ahead is truly extraordinary.

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Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

To see Michael speaking live, click here and for more information on Michael's speaking topics, michaelmcqueen.net/programs.

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[1] Bishop, T. 2017, ‘Amazon Unveils $20 Dash Wand With Alexa For Voice-Enabled Grocery Ordering And Home Controls’, GeekWire, 14 June.

[2] Dunn, J. 2017, ‘Amazon’s Alexa Has Gained 14,000 Skills In The Last Year’, Business Insider, 6 July.

[3] 2017, ‘Break Through the Hype – Uncover the Reality Of A.I.’, Oracle + Bronto, July.

[4] Birnbaum, B 2020, ‘AI is Growing, But The Robots Are Not Coming For Customer Service,’ Forbes, 5 March.

[5] 2017, ‘Chatbots Will Save Business $8B a Year’, Which-50, 9 May.

[6] Vincent, J. 2018, ‘Google’s AI Sounds Like A Human On The Phone – Should We Be Worried?’, The Verge, 9 May.

[7] Canton, J. 2015, Future Smart, Da Capo Press, Philadelphia, p. 183.