Speech Technology Magazine


Can Watson Replace Customer Service Agents?

IBM's famed computer will still need improved speech technologies to be fully effective.
By Alon Cohen - Posted Jul 24, 2013
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Watson, IBM's cognitive computing system capable of answering questions posed in natural language, has been helping professionals in the clinical and banking fields diagnose ailments and recommend products, saving companies time, money, and resources. Now, it's putting on a new suit: customer service agent.

As an executive who is rooted deeply in providing high-quality, consistent customer service, I have to challenge Watson's newest use case.

Based on what I read, IBM chose to incorporate existing speech recognition technology (like the one used for Siri) as a front end to Watson. This will require near-flawless speech recognition, a technological challenge that has been very elusive for many years now.

Apple with Siri and Google, at least publicly so far, haven't been able to provide a solid solution. As we all know, speech recognition is still one of the most challenging technological hurdles to overcome. But there are a few possible workarounds, one of which is to use text input, which we know is kind of slow and annoying for users.

Watson, however, could become the ultimate customer service agent with the help of humans. First, using people as listeners—biological speech recognizers if you like—who type in customers' initial questions and comments into Watson. These people do not talk. They just listen to the caller and type what they hear so Watson can talk back to the customer using text-to-speech, thus providing the illusion of natural speech interaction with Watson. The listeners can be located anywhere in the world and reliably translate different languages.

In addition to listeners, a company should have a person or a small group of experts training Watson while it acts as a huge number of support agents at once. Training would involve product and technical training, even teaching new words or sounds related to the company's products or services. This could potentially solve the wait time problem and the fluctuations in agent expertise from which every customer support organization suffers. Not to mention, Watson will never ask for a sick day or have to take a vacation, which will ensure consistent, high-quality customer support.

Since human listeners might be needed for Watson to interact accurately with customers, I do not see this technology lowering the cost of customer service just yet. However, the quality of service might go up dramatically, increasing brand loyalty.

Customer service is truly an art form, and like many executives across the globe, I welcome any new solutions that will help make it better. I plan to keep my eye on Watson. Plus, I really hope that the Google Glass technology that relies on speech recognition will set new and higher thresholds for speech recognition that will finally bring "Star Trek"-level speech-based person-to-machine interaction to the market.

Alon Cohen is executive vice president and chief technology officer at Phone.com.

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