What is Conversational AI?

AI is enabling a new generation of UI which allows humans to interact with digital systems through the medium most natural to them: Conversation (either through the spoken word or interactive, unscripted text chats). While humans have long “conversed” with computers, those interactions had to follow strict structured rules that the computers were pre-programmed to anticipate (e.g., “Enter the wizard’s cave.”). The ascendant generation of conversational AI solutions are able to discern a wide spectrum of user inputs including ones she wasn’t specifically programmed to anticipate — everything from “Hello, I’d like to reserve a hotel room on Tuesday,” to “Hey, I’m going to be staying at your hotel in a few days, what room options do you have?”

Furthermore, AI systems with advanced capabilities, like Amelia, are even able to generate qualifying questions to confirm user intent:

User: Amelia, what’s the balance on my account?
Amelia: Would you like to know the balance for your Savings or Checking account?

These systems then translate user intents into specific actions based on business needs. These engagements are particularly powerful when paired with an autonomic backend, which allows users to access processes and automations just by requesting them. This opens up a number of exciting possibilities that will impact businesses, employees and customers.

More than a Chatbot

Conversational AI can learn, grow and improve on its own. Chatbots follow strict scripts and are no more “intelligent” than automated phone systems. Chatbots can only usher users through highly templated interactions, and while they may be able to handle a few basic questions, they will still require constant human oversight. This is due to chatbots’ inability to decipher idiomatic questions, quickly learn new tasks or handle multi-context requests. If a user asks for feedback or help making a decision, a chatbot will escalate the request to a human unless that exact question has been programmed for a response.

While this might be acceptable in limited end-user scenarios, such as responding to scripted FAQs, chatbots cannot automate engagements among a broad pool of users looking for complex information or transactions. When dealing with a large user base, Conversational AI can address a wide spectrum of technical knowledge and speaking styles. Unfortunately, some companies have deployed chatbots while thinking that they’ve actually deployed advanced AI — a mistake that could have long-term negative implications, which is what makes our new series such an important resource.

AI System Impact on Business

When employees execute complex business tasks via vocal or typed commands, it can lower the training threshold for new employees, as they will be able to use their business systems immediately without the need for extensive instructions. Employees will even have the ability to access systems in other departments without knowledge of how those other systems operate. For example, an accounting manager can request a new laptop without learning the IT system or even engaging with an IT worker:

Accountant: Amelia, I need a replacement laptop. Mine is on its last legs.
Amelia: I can set-up a ticket for a new laptop with the same programs and authorizations. Once approved, the new laptop will be issued by IT department within three business days.

Not only will Conversational AI open access to digital systems regardless of technical know-how, but it allows all users to engage with these systems regardless of physical ability. Many members of the disabled community have been shut out from the digital revolution because so many UIs were built around the assumption that users would have full use of their hands and clear vision (e.g., keyboards and touchscreens). Conversational AI allows anyone with a voice to take advantage of all the digital-based products and services most of us take for granted.

Within organizations, Conversational AI will be a powerful tool to elevate employee productivity. When paired with an automated backend, employees can issue top-level commands to the system through conversation, which then will be carried out at scale with machine efficiency, such as:

User: Amelia, send an email to all customers who spent more than a $1000 online with us in the past year with the promotion on our latest sale.
User: Amelia, please automatically add an Outlook account for each new hire.
User: Amelia, please generate a confirmation email to all employees once their time-off requests are approved or rejected.

When humans are removed from routine transactional tasks related to achieving a goal, they will be freed to create new business value through uniquely human traits such as people skills, empathy, negotiation and creative problem solving. This doesn’t only make jobs more rewarding for employees, but inevitably benefits companies and customers.

Conversational AI’s ubiquity is growing. It is the next frontier for AI’s growth in business, and it may very well be the next chapter in our species’ relationship to technology overall.