With a little help from our robot friends…

Dec 20, 2016

There was a time when the words ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI) mainly conjured up associations with The Terminator or RoboCop. But, today, we find it normal to talk to Apple’s Siri or to tell our car to navigate us to our next appointment. The advent of extreme computing power, connectivity and cloud storage is creating a wealth of opportunities in the field of AI…both in our personal lives – you may well have already had contact with a chatbot when shopping online – and our professional ones.

At your service

A multitude of technologies can be classed as AI. Two major ones – which are also likely to make their way into the world of business pretty soon – are virtual assistants and bots. Bots, or chatbots, are designed to answer questions, to perform searches and to interact with people in a very simple way. In fact, they represent a new, text-based user interface providing access to a service. The more you ask bots to help you, the smarter they get and, ultimately, they should be able to anticipate your needs to help you even better. And the good news is, bots are not a scenario for the distant future – they’re already here!

Imagine you’re a sales rep. To input a new sales opportunity in the CRM system, you have to open the app, scroll through it, enter the details of the new opportunity manually and save it. In the case of a chatbot, you just send him (or her!) a text message with a request to create the new sales opportunity for you. If your chatbot lacks information to complete your request, he will reply to you with a text message asking for the missing information. No downloads needed, no user names and passwords, no manual input in applications – just simple and efficient.

In a similar way, virtual assistants are designed to make our jobs easier in some way. Unlike with a bot, you interact with your virtual assistant through speech rather than by text message. In the case of field technicians, that gives them much quicker and easier access to information. Upon arrival at a customer’s premises for a repair job, they can simply use their headset to ask for help. If they request a specific product manual, the virtual assistant will talk them through how to proceed. No need for paper manuals or tablets, no time wasted, plus they can work hands-free. And just like bots, your personal assistants also get smarter along the way. Siri, who has much more contextual awareness now, is able to make suggestions even before you ask a question. For example, ‘Traffic to home is 20 minutes right now.’ It’s up to you then to decide whether to follow that advice…

Speed is of the essence

We live in a world in which speed is crucial in almost everything we do. Our customers want to be served faster, we need faster access to data and information, we need faster decision-making…and bots and virtual assistants may hold some of the answers in terms of meeting these needs. Bots and virtual assistants can deliver a strong ROI for many companies, especially in sales and field service – which were also among the early adopters of mobile apps – but also in other domains.

So should we all start building little robot helpers right away? Yes and no. It is definitely time to start thinking about how your business can benefit from these technologies and to start testing with a proof of concept. However, some aspects still need some tweaking, in particular the speech element to tackle the challenges of recognizing different languages and dialects. But the technology is evolving and maturing very quickly – probably faster than our mindsets.

AI framework

Apart from the technological issues, there are some other important AI-related questions to be answered. How do we ensure cybersecurity? And, in terms of data confidentiality, how do we set boundaries for what a virtual assistant can learn? A lot of thinking needs to be done to determine an adequate governance model for AI in a business context.
So will your future colleagues be robots? Well, I wouldn’t expect the Terminator to be scheduling meetings or processing invoices any time soon, but I’m sure there is a place for bots and virtual assistants in the business world.

Author: Steven Lenaerts. You can follow Steven on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.