The State of Intelligent Virtual Assistants

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The global COVID-19 pandemic shook businesses to the core and boosted their use of intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs). Advances came in COVID-specific applications as well as in the growing use of the technology in the healthcare market. In addition, the groundwork was laid so that in 2021, these solutions could become more interoperable. We’re also seeing the number of suppliers dwindle through market consolidation.

IVA interest has definitely been growing of late. “Every Fortune 500 firm has deployed some flavor of chatbots,” notes Dan Miller, founder and lead analyst of Opus Research. “Now, enterprises are ready to invest billions in these digital agents so they handle a wider number of use cases.”

Year in Review

The biggest event last year, and perhaps in this century, was the COVID-19 pandemic. Its social distancing rules drove demand for touchless technology as companies and individuals tried to limit the physical touching of objects, like keyboards, phones, and screens. “In a sense, the first few months of the pandemic sped up IVA use cases by as much as 10 years,” Miller says.

The boon seems to have legs. Opus projects worldwide enterprise virtual assistant revenue will increase from $2 billion in 2020 to $4 billion in 2023.

New COVID-related IVA applications emerged. Many are front-facing and provide information to individuals.

In March Avaamo released Project COVID, which provides virus information such as a symptom checker, global status updates, school closures data, and state-mandated lockdown details. The solution also answers various user questions, such as “Do I need to wash my vegetables?” or “Is food delivery contagious?”

But vendors also delivered back-office solutions. In April, Artificial Solutions launched Tiva, which streamlines the processing of employee work-at-home requests. The product provides personnel with answers to questions about setting up a hotspot, canceling approved leave, or determining if bonuses will be paid.

Not surprisingly, healthcare has been a prominent IVA market niche, with doctors and other service providers working in high-stress environments with constantly changing demands. Research shows that chatbots can help: More than 80 percent of physicians believe healthcare virtual assistants can reduce the burden placed on care teams and improve the patient experience.

Nuance Communications has advanced as one of the leaders in the healthcare IVA space. Its solutions are used by more than 550,000 clinicians in 10,000 healthcare organizations worldwide to deliver care to more than 300 million patients. The vendor teamed up with a few healthcare solution suppliers to extend its products’ reach.

In September Nuance added voice-driven navigation to MEDITECH’s Expanse electronic health record system. The product enables physicians to gather patient health data hands-free. During consultations, they can use their voice to review their patients’ chart information, such as lab results, medications, allergies, and radiology images.

In July Cerner integrated Nuance’s technology into its Cerner Millennium EHR. Cerner’s Millennium supports voice chart search, navigation, computerized physician order entry (CPOE), and scheduling. The solution, compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), enables healthcare providers to automate repetitive processes and streamline care delivery.

Virtual patient care has become more common because of the pandemic. In September, Nuance linked its Nuance Dragon Ambient eXperience, a clinical intelligence solution, with Microsoft Teams, a collaboration solution. The solution captures the details of virtual doctor visits, including needed context, that speed up writing of the clinical documentation required with each patient visit.

A Look Ahead

The IVA market, which has been in a period of high growth, also demonstrated some signs of moving to the next stage of market development, one of consolidation. Acquisitions became common.

Operating since 2005, Inference Solutions is an IVA platform provider focused on the customer care market. The company, which had more than 550 customers worldwide, markets Inference Studio, which enterprises rely on to create multimedia, self-service applications. In October, Five9, a cloud contact center software supplier, acquired Inference Solutions. Five9 provides contact center solutions to medium and large enterprises, and the Interference Solutions’ IVA will be woven into them.

Not every new IVA venture was successful. In August, Salesforce shut down development of its Einstein Voice Assistant. The comet-like solution was announced with tons of hype at Dreamforce, Salesforce’s annual user conference, in 2018. Opus Research’s Miller notes that the decision to stop development illustrates a market shift.

Automated speech recognition (ASR) and text-to-speech (TTS) functionality are building blocks that virtually all developers incorporate into their voice user interfaces. IVA interest shifted to tools and features that simplify the development process for enterprise employees, system integrators, and business process outsourcers. In effect, less work is required on the front end and more is needed on back-end integration.

But Salesforce did not abandon the IVA market completely. Already, the vendor had tied its voice services to Amazon Web Services’ a la carte contact-center-as-a-service (CCaaS) solution, Amazon Connect. Moving forward, Salesforce is expected to focus more resources on the AWS platform.

The IVA market has also had to grapple with the fact that it has been a Wild West, an area with little to no law and order. “There have been no widely accepted standards, but increasingly they will be needed because customers want to move into multivendor environments and take advantage of a broader range of services,” Miller notes.

Suppliers have traditionally delivered proprietary solutions, which hamstrings customers at times. Organizations dedicate a lot of time and resources deploying chatbots and training staff to operate them, but little to none of that expertise is transferable to other applications, increasing training requirements, overhead, and expenses.

Ideally, the industry would like to pool IVAs’ skills and deepen their solutions’ breadth of responses. To gain such capabilities, the industry needs standards that govern areas like how to pull information from a variety of databases.

A few vendors are trying to move the market in another direction by creating intelligent, common connectors. In August, Artificial Solutions filed a patent for technology that enables IVAs to work together. The patent details how conversational artificial intelligence systems share resources and skills through a common communication protocol. The vendor also developed a methodology that automatically determines a chatbot’s suitability to answer specific customer queries, taking into consideration the chatbot’s depth of knowledge and its capabilities.

Such work offers businesses a number of potential benefits. When a business acquisition occurs or a company works with new partners, complex, challenging integration work follows. If the standards work gains traction, mixing and matching IVA capabilities becomes simpler.

IVAs have been an area of prime interest to enterprises. In the past year, healthcare challenges spurred adoption and many solutions were delivered for that sector. In 2021, such work might evolve from vertical to horizontal deployments so other industries will be able to more easily integrate different solutions. The work and stakes are high, so additional consolidation will also shape the IVA market this year, experts agree. 

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in technology issues. He has been covering speech technology issues for more than two decades, is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com or on Twitter @PaulKorzeniowski.

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