The 2016 State of the Speech Technology Industry: Intelligent Virtual Assistants

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Stronger Engagement With AI

Vendors are working with various brands that see IVAs as critical to enhancing customer engagement, Merijn te Booij, Genesys executive vice president of product and solution strategy, wrote in a company blog:

"As smart as Siri, Google Now, and Cortana are, [Amazon Echo] is the most intelligent cloud-based personal assistant I've yet seen in a consumer device. But even Echo—or Alexa, as the Amazon AI prefers to be addressed—pales in comparison to the cognitive-computing IBM Watson.

"We've been working with the IBM Watson team to find ways to put its AI smarts to use in enterprise contact centers. Watson’s ability to swiftly process tremendous amounts of unstructured data allow it to search databases for answers to customers' questions far more quickly than human agents ever could. In 2016, with AI becoming increasingly conversational and integrated into our daily lives, I predict more customer engagements will begin with the words 'Siri' or 'Hello, Alexa' as their novelty value is finally outstripped by their actual usefulness.”

Beyond its work with IBM, in December Genesys acquired SpeechStorm, a provider of self-service applications for mobile, Web, and IVR channels, which should help expand its IVA offerings.

"People want seamless ways to communicate with companies," says Jay Wilpon, senior vice president of natural language at Interactions, who expects more companies to add hosted IVA solutions.

IVAs' use in customer service is growing, agrees Phil Gray, executive vice president of Interactions, yet for IVAs to deliver, humans have to work behind the scenes. Responses and language understanding need to be continually updated to avoid misunderstood communications.

Machine learning is still more concept than reality when it comes to today's IVAs, says Rick Collins, president of enterprise for NextIT, which has provided IVA technology for Amtrak and Alaska Airlines, among others. But IVAs are getting better, and as users become more comfortable with them, they'll use them for more advanced services.

The technology is already a revenue generator for some companies, Collins notes. With Alaska Airlines, for example, users can ask for flight options, book flights, and make flight changes.

In many instances, an IVA's customer service aspect provides cost savings for enterprises. For example, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recently launched a virtual assistant, Emma, based on NextIT technology; it enables customers to quickly find accurate information, answering questions in plain English and navigating users to relevant USCIS Web pages. ­People can access the IVA via laptop or desktop today, and a mobile interface is expected early this year.

Young Market Entrants Expanding

MyWave and its virtual assistant, Frank, is making its way into the United States and the United Kingdom after launching in Australia and New Zealand three years ago. What makes it different from other IVAs is that information is contained in the user’s own personal cloud rather than the IVA, says Geraldine McBride, the company’s founder and CEO. "As Frank gets to know you, it personalizes your information so it is your assistant. Our assistant is working for you. With others, it's a question of whether you are working for the assistant or the assistant is working for you."

A little later this year, MyWave and New Zealand energy services company Saveawatt will launch a service with Frank that will enable users to sign up, check available electricity plans, select the best one, handle the switching process, and run regular checks to see if better options emerge.

The current IVA implementations reflect just a portion of what the technology will do in the future. Eventually, experts say, IVAs will have full interfaces with other technologies. So rather than asking a connected car to pull up a map or directions to a destination, the driver could simply say "I want to go to the airport," and the IVA will launch direction information, call up flight details, and provide other data without any further direction from the user, Aspect's Johnston says. She can already remotely lock and unlock the door of her home from remote locations, she adds. In the future, expect IVAs to be able to provide similar commands to connected devices in your home. 

Phillip Britt is a freelance writer who focuses on high-tech, financial services, and other industries. He can be reached at spenterprises@wowway.com.

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