AI is starting to get seriously smart, perhaps worryingly so

We’ve seen a couple of AI shout-outs this week with Microsoft targeting telcos’ worryingly poor customer service record and European scientists potentially creating the building blocks for Skynet.

Starting in the Microsoft offices, the team has paired up with Amdocs to provide an intelligent solution to one of the biggest questions which has faced the telco space in years; why are we so poor at customer services?

In the Net Promoter annual report, the team put together a ranking of all the verticals in the US. At the top of the list were physical retail stores, and at the bottom of the list were internet service providers. Cable/Satellite providers were second to last, and cellular providers were 17 out of 23.

Clearly there is something going wrong, and the crack team of Microsoft and Amdocs aim to fix it. How you ask; by introducing chatbots for the telcos, as clearly humans can’t be allowed to have any interaction with their customers.

The SmartBot technology actually comes from Amdocs, but the intelligence is going to be from Microsoft’s artificial intelligence solution, Cortana. This is where the success of the idea will come from. The basic (and advanced) understanding of sentiment, intent, natural language and emotion which we as humans (well most of us anyway) do so easily will need to be replicated in an AI solution for this to be anywhere near a success. This is all Microsoft.

However, Amdocs has contributed something, the machine learning components of the bot. Amdocs claim, although most other AI companies also claim this, it’s intelligence platform can be used to build individual personal experiences for each customer.

But why start in the telco customer service arena? Well, the NPS scores are usually so low even if the technology doesn’t work, it’s not going to cause that much collateral damage…

However, despite there being an army of nay-sayers arguing against AI, Amdocs has said we’re getting more accustomed to the idea. Research from the team has shown:

  • Half of consumers think AI will become crucial to their lives within five years
  • 85% of businesses believe customers services will be performed by bots within five years
  • 37% forget they are conversing with a bot during some of these interactions
  • While 73% want human like traits in their bot to perhaps confuse the distinction further. Politeness was the most popular trait (64%), though a sense of humour was there for a few as well (29%). And we prefer female bots as well (35% vs. 15%)

“Artificial Intelligence has been domesticated and normalised in the minds of many consumers. Where once ‘AI’ meant robots and sci-fi, now it is has become accessible, is in people’s homes, and is helping them to complete everyday tasks,” said Jonathan Kaftzan, Head of Marketing at Amdocs Digital.

The normalization and acceptance of AI from the general public is of course crucial for any of these big ideas to work, but when should the line be drawn? If acceptance gives permission for scientists to push the boundaries, who is mature enough to say we have gone far enough, or will we find out too late…

Leaving Microsoft and Amdocs behind, a team of European scientist has been trying to figure out how to make robots smarter, more independent and self-healing. Hailing from Lausanne, Lisbon and Brussels, the scientists have written a paper called ‘Mergeable nervous systems for robots’ (you can find the full paper here), which puts out an idea which could be the beginning of the end.

The basic idea is to have a swarm of robots, all of which have their own CPUs, but can merge together to achieve more complex or physically taxing tasks. Once the robots merge, one is designated the ‘brain’ which control the rest. These robots can function on their own, but once merged, the power (both physical and intelligence) is increased through the basic idea of scale.

“Here, we present robots whose bodies and control systems can merge to form entirely new robots that retain full sensorimotor control,” the paper reads.

“Our control paradigm enables robots to exhibit properties that go beyond those of any existing machine or of any biological organism: the robots we present can merge to form larger bodies with a single centralized controller, split into separate bodies with independent controllers, and self-heal by removing or replacing malfunctioning body parts. This work takes us closer to robots that can autonomously change their size, form and function.”

Where this perhaps doesn’t become a good idea is the intelligence aspect. Right now robots are controlled by piece of software in the cloud. If things are going wrong, you break the connection, rendering the robot to a piece of metal. In this example, the scientists are proposing putting the intelligence in the machines, which can be scaled as the machines merge.

But it’s not just the intelligence that scales, it’s also the strength, the range of skills and the adaptability of the robots. Sounds neat right, or have we just started the beginning of the end of humanity.

Alexa gets into bed with Cortana

Amazon and Microsoft have announced their previously competing voice-driven AI assistants are now an item.

The world can be a lonely place for virtual assistants. All the company they have are demanding millennials constantly asking what their latest email is or a retiree wondering what the weather is like in Florida or Beijing.

But for no longer. The sympathetic chaps over at Microsoft and Amazon have shown they have a caring side, arranging a playdate for Cortana with Alexa. As part of the new tie up, the two virtual assistants will be hooked up, meaning users can switch between the two, just by asking the assistant itself.

It’s a simple process. By simply saying ‘hey Cortana, open Alexa’ you’ll be able to liaise directly with your Amazon virtual assistant for shopping, or vice versa if you want to check your emails or your calendar on Outlook.

“Ensuring Cortana is available for our customers everywhere and across any device is a key priority for us,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. “Bringing Cortana’s knowledge, Office 365 integration, commitments and reminders to Alexa is a great step toward that goal.”

“The world is big and so multifaceted,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO. “There are going to be multiple successful intelligent agents, each with access to different sets of data and with different specialized skill areas. Together, their strengths will complement each other and provide customers with a richer and even more helpful experience. It’s great for Echo owners to get easy access to Cortana.”

From Microsoft’s perspective it is a pretty smart move. Most people will use their virtual assistant for the trivial everyday things. Checking the weather, the weekly shop or changing music for instance. The virtual assistant trends are being realised in the consumer world, an arena which Microsoft doesn’t really have much say in nowadays. The tie in with Alexa brings Cortana into everyday life, and normalizes the idea of virtual assistants in your professional lives as well.

It’s not available yet, but before too long you’ll be able to access Alexa on via Cortana on Windows 10 PCs, followed by Android and iOS. On the other side of things, you’ll be able to access Cortana on Alexa-enabled devices like the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Show.

Elsewhere in the Alexa world, Amazon has released its Connected Speaker APIs, which allows customers to ask Alexa to play music wireless or multi-room speakers including brands like Sonos, Sound United, Bose, and Samsung.

This might seem like another small bit of news, but it is quite an important one; like the partnership with Microsoft, Alexa is spreading its influence to hardware which isn’t Amazon’s. The initial financial reward of virtual assistants like Alexa will be the hardware purchased by customers, but the long-term (and substantially bigger) prize will be controlling access to the customer.

Facebook created the social media walled garden and charges access to the customer. The potential is there for virtual assistants, as can be seen with Amazon’s recent tie up with UK online grocer Ocado. Users ask Alexa to add items to the shopping list, and then a delivery time is arranged at some point in the future. Google did a similar tie up with Walmart as well, and you can bet there will be more partnerships of this nature. Financials of such arrangements have not been unveiled just yet, but it would be a safe bet to assume the virtual assistants will be taking a cut for being the friendly face to the consumer.

The battle for control of the living room is beginning to hot up, and we originally thought Google was in the lead, but we’re not too sure anymore. The Ocado tie up is a good basis to build Amazon’s challenge to traditional supermarket shopping, with Microsoft it adds a different element with a monstrous user base and with the Connected Speaker API it is saying that Alexa can be everywhere, not just on Amazon or Microsoft hardware.

Predicting the winner is going to be difficult, as while Amazon is making headway right now, Google has a significant advantage. Google has claimed there are more than two billion Android monthly active users, which essentially means there are two billion devices which are there for the Google Assistant to enter the fray. The dominance of Android in the operating system game certainly gives Google an advantage, and that’s not even taking into account the Google Home devices which have been sold.

This is going to be a fascinating battle. We have two technology giants, with hugely respected and trusted brands, as well as different experiences in monetizing the digital revolution, going head-to-head to win control of the living room. Amazon has the retail experience, but Google has the advertising relationship. No-one else can really compete with the credentials, footprint or the current progress which has been made.

Google Assistant versus Alexa, it will be an epic one. Sorry Siri.