Five minutes with: GCI's Head of Propositions, Karl Roberts

The rise of the Super-Agent

27 July 2017

Artificial intelligence will herald the rise of the ‘super-agent’ according to Karl Roberts, GCI’s Head of Propositions. He has been ‘out and about,’ recently keynoting in London and Lisbon. That's four events in four weeks; UC Expo (ExCel), the KP Morgan Excellence in Contact Centres Summit (Lisbon) the Intelligent Assistants Conference (Claridges) and the Contact Centre Summit (Stansted). We caught up with him to see what’s on his mind and how he sees artificial intelligence (AI) impacting the changing face of the Contact Centre.

Where do you think AI is at now?

Artificial Intelligence is still in its infancy in terms of what’s possible but we’re certainly seeing some major breakthroughs. AI has changed the way we use natural language and has vastly improved IVR systems, which are now second nature to use.

The back office is equally exciting. We can learn a lot from the legal sector that is using AI to interrogate large volumes of data. So, if a lawyer is researching a case it will massively automate the laborious process and (for example) intelligently bring back precedents. This makes it much easier for legal teams to establish their argument and can boost win rates, as well as save time. Examples such as this can be applied across a variety of industries and change the way complex queries are dealt with.

How is AI impacting natural language?

When we want something we are ingrained to ask for in a natural way and we’re now able to do that with systems, including IVR. Look at the popularity of Amazon Alexa for instance. We’re now looking at the death of keywords because you get far greater accuracy in terms of finding what you really want when you ask for it in a context rich sentence – as you would when speaking to another person. We’re now at 95% accuracy in speech recognition; once we get to 98% it truly becomes ‘game over’ in terms of changing the old ways that we interacted with systems.

Are there lessons to be learned from the impact of Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Google Assistant and the like for contact centres and the business world?

Absolutely! Virtual assistants like Siri and Amazon Echo have helped ‘consumerise’ the space and that can only help business. People used to dislike IVR systems but there’s now much greater acceptance that it actually works and many trust it a lot more. Of course, many will still ‘cling on’ to the old ways of doing things but this will naturally evolve with time. New generation IVR will change everything, because you can say anything you like to it with a good chance of being understood. At a conference I attended the other week I saw a demo where Amazon Alexa was used with Sky Scanner – the whole process from searching for flights right through to booking was done via voice. That’s the future.

Where do you stand on the AI versus jobs debate?

It’s a complex argument. We are already seeing new job titles created that we couldn’t have envisaged before. A study by Deloitte showed that technology has created more jobs than it has taken over the last 140 years, whilst eliminating many of the dangerous and dull jobs we used to do. So, it might be that many data crunching ‘admin’ type jobs will become more automated but the role of humans to oversee and grapple with the more challenging tasks that AI can’t do (yet) will continue and grow with business demand and adoption.

What do you mean by the rise of the ‘super-agent’?

AI is enabling people to ‘self-serve’ like never before. It’s slowly eliminating the routine and admin- intensive calls. Some local councils have for instance even enabled the entire planning permission process to be automated, which has reduced hundreds of calls. At last year’s WPC, the Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella walked through a demo with McDonalds where the drive through process could be automated via enhanced speech recognition.

But of course, there will always be instances where people need to talk to a real human being. This means these ‘super agents’ will be needed that are true ‘experts’ who can answer anything.

What do you see as the biggest current barriers?

We must make the hand-off from IVR to humans absolutely seamless. We know that if customers don’t resolve issues they get tetchy and might take to Twitter for instance to criticise a brand. This supports my previous point about ‘super agents’ and the vital role they will have to play in preventing this.

There are problems with the early introduction of some technologies that haven’t instilled confidence. I have seen some evidence that 90% of chat bots just don’t work as many are written by novices.

We must understand our customers. AI is currently poor at empathy as robots don’t have emotional intelligence, but it will get there and over time there aren’t any barriers that can’t be overcome.

One last word to the future?

At the moment, we’re voice driven but services will continue to move with us and around us. It might be that services become more sensory and incorporate things such as taste and smell. That will be incredible for the restaurant businesses, for example.

But this must be done in a way that gets the ‘buy in’ of the users. Privacy concerns are paramount and legitimate so it’s not just a case of technology evolution; it’s also one of culture and our attitudes that will shape the future.

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