The ROBIT revolution

South Africa is not taking a back seat in the Virtual Personal Assistant market: meet ROBIT, an artificial intelligence that books rooms, makes sense of ERPs and even tells jokes.

James Francis
By James Francis, Ghost Writer, Copywriter, Media Hack & Illustrator
Johannesburg, 21 Apr 2016

Machines are bound, maybe even destined, to take over. Not in the dystopian lore of robots subjugating humans, but instead as a means towards a better quality of life. Transhumanists often speak of a future where almost everything is done by technology, resulting in a lot of leisure time. One such activist told website Salon that in the future, robots may have all the jobs and humans will live on a universal income, a popular idea among the movement's proponents: "(People) might become artists, go to the Bahamas, write songs and drink margaritas."

ROBIT is not about to replace anyone's job, but it is a glimmer of that future - one where the menial tasks get handed over to electronic subordinates.

ROBIT is not about to replace anyone's job, but it is a glimmer of that future - one where the menial tasks get handed over to electronic subordinates. Sitting in a meeting room in Midrand, Bruce Williams and Marc Fetcher from South African company Intervate demonstrate their virtual personal assistant to me. Using a Skype for Business message window, Williams interacts with ROBIT (pronounced Rob-Et) through a series of chatty commands.

"I want to book a meeting room," he types. ROBIT responds, asking how many people will be attending. "400," Williams replies, prompting ROBIT to give a tonguein- cheek protest: "We don't have any stadiums here!"

Williams answers with a far more realistic request - 20 people - and ROBIT asks for the date, then offers available time slots and rooms. The task flows easily across the back and forth of the chat, as if Williams is actually chatting to a secretary with a dry wit and an astounding insight into the company's meeting rooms.

But this is only a glimmer of ROBIT's talents. It is much more than a simple interface: I prefer to compare ROBIT to Siri, the virtual personal assistant (VPA) that operates through Apple devices. I recently acquired my first iPhone, and couldn't quite work out where everything was. I didn't have to: I simply asked Siri in plain language and it loaded the right applications.

IM interaction

ROBIT isn't Siri and Williams isn't very enthusiastic about the comparison. He sees Siri as a personal lifestyle assistant, whereas ROBIT is out to simplify work processes. There are also other differences: Siri responds to voice commands, whereas ROBIT operates through typed requests. Fetcher says typing is better suited for a business environment, especially if you are already in the habit of corresponding through a keyboard. Chats with ROBIT are the same as with any other instant messenger interaction. This also allows the VPA to communicate seamlessly through third-party mobile apps and other interfaces.

Still, Siri serves as a good template for grasping ROBIT's value: artificial intelligence that does the heavy lifting around dull tasks. The meeting room example is apt: how often have you had to trawl through room schedules and available facilities to find the perfect match? I've seen all kinds of innovative ways to step around this issue, including touchscreens on walls wired to the company's calendar system.

In a few minutes, ROBIT delivered on Williams' request: a room for 20 was booked, all through a brief conversation. Like many natural language VPAs, ROBIT doesn't need mechanical syntax to understand you. Just simply tell it what to do. And booking rooms is not ROBIT's only talent.

Fetcher says he relies on ROBIT all the time. The VPA can be integrated with popular ERP and CRM systems. Fetcher uses ROBIT to draw up customer invoices and other paperwork from Intervate's back-end systems. The thing about an ERP, he adds, is that most people only use a very small part of it. The complexity often prompts them to rely on others - administrators of some kind - to help get the task done. ROBIT reduces that interaction to a few conversational requests.

A veneer of ease

ROBIT is an interface that follows simple instructions to execute repetitive or time consuming tasks. Just like Siri, or for that matter the graphic user interface of modern computers, ROBIT is a veneer of ease over the complexity of technology. As Williams put it, it's for tackling the menial tasks that often force employees to sacrifice focus on their goals, such as generating invoices or digging up reports.

So, ROBIT, where have you been all of our lives? The software has been incubating for over five years at Intervate, which decided to open it to the market after seeing Gartner predict the rise of VPAs in the workplace. Its creators are eager to see ROBIT out in the real world, which will lead to even more features. One day, an employee might request leave through ROBIT or they could easily delve into the company knowledge base by asking relevant questions. Unlike static software, VPAs improve as they learn and adopt new tasks - everything except pick up the morning coffee. Intervate is hoping companies will see this journey and join in.

For that reason, ROBIT's pricing is kept to a single site-wide licence and once-off costs for integration with back-end systems (on-site or in the cloud). It can be limited to a department and scaled quite easily. But it's not a deal for early adopters: ROBIT is an enterprise-ready business tool. The real question is if an enterprise is ready for ROBIT.

This article was first published in the April 2016 edition of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine. To read more, go to the Brainstorm website.