AI: Your digital best friend

July 2016

Looking for a restaurant nearby? Ask Marsbot, a bot that learns about the types of places you like to go and texts you with suggestions for nearby eateries you might enjoy. Feeling under the weather? Speak with a chatbot named Your.MD, powered by an Artificial Intelligence (AI) engine that guides you to better treatment. Rather than poking at a smartphone and simply using technology to complete a task, humans will have conversations with technology.

“In the long run, I think we will evolve in computing from a mobile-first to an AI-first world,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Alphabet's Q1 earnings call. Research from Ericsson’s ConsumerLab indicates that within five years, Artificial Intelligence will enable interactions without requiring a screen. This will be a game changer, solving a critical user experience problem: Users are tired of operating multiple apps and dealing with lengthy click-through sequences in order to complete simple tasks. Without question, people are ready to embrace the simplicity of interacting with intelligent virtual assistants.

You can ask Alexa to play workout music without having to name exact songs or artists, or chat with Quartz, a news app, to learn about the latest trending headlines with your morning coffee. How are these experiences so seamless? Advances in machine learning algorithms power better recommendations, and improved speech recognition makes intelligent agents better at understanding the words you’re saying. Coupled with advances in natural language processing, knowledge representation, and information retrieval, and bots can engage in natural conversations with users while improving the accuracy of their responses. Together, these are the capabilities letting a virtual layer stitch together fragmented channels and deliver them through conversational interfaces. Real-life usage reflects the improvements that have been made: Since the beginning of last year, the number of voice interactions has tripled across all products from Baidu, the dominant Chinese internet search engine company who also invested heavily in developing AI Similarly, a full 20 percent of queries on Google’s mobile app and on Android devices are voice searches.

An essential partner at work too

People are clearly ready for AI-powered conversational interfaces, and soon they will become the norm for how we interact with technology in the workplace as well. Travel agents at Pana embrace working side-by-side with AI assistants. Their AI system parses traveler information and analyzes natural language to provide intelligent travel choices for customers. The result? Agents are able to focus their energy on the more unique nuances of travel planning, and customers are clamoring for a chance to try the new way to book travel. And while asset-heavy companies already employ industrial robots to automate assembly lines, asset-light entities will soon deploy virtual assistants throughout the workplace, letting humans work smarter.

This AI enthusiasm is a global phenomenon. Seventy percent of business and IT executives who participated in the Technology Vision 2016 Survey are already making significantly more investment in AI-related technologies than they were two years ago, and 55% said they plan on using machine learning and embedded artificial intelligence. Global AI equity funding surpassed $6.6B across 1,241 deals from 2011 to Q1 2016. And equity financing for the AI space has gone from $282M in 2011 to $2.4B in 2015, an increase of more than 700 percent in just 5 years.

“2016 will be the year of conversational commerce,” according to Chris Messina, Developer Experience Lead at Uber. Companies must rethink the way they interact with their customers and take an active role to engage with them differently. Having a HAL-9000 run your business may appear too futuristic, but it’s happening with real-world technology. Businesses are building chatbots on Facebook Messenger and Slack to push direct messages to customers via existing platforms and services, and they’re leveraging standalone virtual assistants like Accenture’s myWizard to help employees with software testing and data analysis. As the wave of conversational interfaces takes speed, companies must initiate pilots of these new types of experiences with their customers and employees.

Intelligent assistants are a small step in the direction of intelligent applications, but a giant leap for the future of human interaction with technology. Today, people talk to each other—tomorrow, we’ll be talking with machines.