The State of Artificial Intelligence

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Much of the innovation in AI in recent years has been driven by the finance industry, Hebner says, and more specifically the large banks. These institutions employ large teams of developers and “are becoming technology companies that also do banking and finance,” he says. A reluctance to rely on the public cloud for customers’ conversations is one factor. “They’re saying, ‘We want to do that in-house and we won’t buy an end solution,” Hebner says. Companies focused on the enterprise are responding to those demands, offering technology that can be installed at large banks and is flexible enough to meet their needs. And though these firms are leveraging AI in a number of areas, most recognize that they aren’t experts on recognition but they want to be able to design applications themselves. “It’s that hybrid model of bringing in flexible technology, solutions experts, and your own experts,” Hebner says.

A Look Ahead

The use of AI is gaining speed across nearly every sector. As part of his 2019 predictions, Forbes contributor Bernard Marr says the use of AI assistants in everyday life will grow even more: “These services will become increasingly useful as they learn to anticipate our behaviors better and understand our habits.” Looking down the road, IDC’s “FutureScape: Worldwide IT Industry 2019 Predictions” anticipates 30% of enterprises will use conversational speech technology for customer engagement by 2022. 

One area where AI is likely to make a big impact in the coming years is in the contact center. Beccue says he believes companies will look at the use of AI to boost their customer service virtual assistants as a way to decrease the costs of managing contact centers while improving self-help options. The large investments needed to staff an efficient contact center are certainly a compelling driver. “As the context is getting better, more companies will be willing to put virtual assistants on the front line,” Beccue says, adding these may encompass a hybrid approach that combines AI-based virtual assistants with the humans already working in the contact center. This strategy may prove to be an effective recipe for streamlining operations, reducing expenses, and giving customers a faster, more natural service experience.

In the past, companies were somewhat hesitant to blend AI and virtual assistants. Whether this was because they feared the quality of the customer encounter might drop or out of a lack of familiarity with AI technology in general, Beccue believes the use will increase. “It will grow because the agents are better and AI is getting better,” he says. In addition, he thinks the need for improved customer service options will be enough to put more firms onto the AI path.

Moving into 2019, Hebner anticipates more attention will be given to making AI-powered voice interactions richer. Beyond performing accurately—which the technology has been doing for quite some time—he sees the ability to hold more meaningful conversations on the horizon. “Say I’m contacting an airline,” Hebner says. “How can they hold a richer dialogue because they know I’m traveling today?” The use of external data sources to enhance context is one strategy that could be used to deliver better results using AI and speech technology.

But as companies seek to improve usability in 2019 and beyond, many are likely to discover one additional challenge with conversational AI: It’s a huge effort. “There’s a lot of human work in doing this,” Hebner says. Every discussion with a voice assistant begins long before, with a subject matter expert documenting the process in detail. “Someone sat down and scripted that conversation,” Hebner explains. “They’re rules-based systems.” Only once the foundation is set can AI be deployed on top, a realization that could slow some initiatives and cause providers to reexamine how quickly they can move into the next phase.

Julie Knudson is a freelance business writer who specializes in technology. She also covers healthcare, cybersecurity, risk management, and hospitality. Reach her at www.julieknudson.com.

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