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Conversational AI steps up


Johannesburg, 07 Dec 2021
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Sebastian Reeve, Director of International Go-To-Market, Intelligent Engagement, Nuance Communications.
Sebastian Reeve, Director of International Go-To-Market, Intelligent Engagement, Nuance Communications.

Artificial intelligence (AI), which not very long ago was largely regarded as being confined to the realm of science fiction, has almost imperceptibly advanced to become an integral part of our daily lives. 

And nowhere is this more apparent than in the strides made in conversational AI, which is increasingly being used across virtually every industry sector from entertainment and retail to healthcare and banking, to give consumers seamless, intuitive experiences.

As Sebastian Reeve, Director of International Go-To-Market, Intelligent Engagement at Nuance Communications, points out, conversational AI has become so much a part of everyday life that people are quite comfortable chatting to digital assistants like Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant. Siri, for example, now fields 25 billion requests each month across the Apple ecosystem – a huge number.

Now, consumers are coming to expect this same effortless, conversational interaction in other aspects of their lives.

So, for example, conversational AI is increasingly being used in the financial sector to improve efficiency in contact centres as well as to protect customers and agents from falling victim to fraud thanks to the incorporation of AI-powered biometrics into conversational banking systems.

“While the idea of managing finances through a conversation with a virtual assistant (VA) is not new and customers are starting to embrace conversational spend-tracking apps like Cleo, they have now also begun to expect smooth, personalised conversational experiences from their banks,” Reeve says.

“Trailblazing financial institutions are constantly finding ways to provide this by improving their self-service experiences. Self-service experiences that are built around a menu-based IVR and a basic chatbot just won’t cut it anymore, particularly when it comes to demanding digital natives.”

Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s virtual assistant (Ceba) provides the type of experience that is likely to become the “norm” for bank customers around the world. Ceba started out as a fairly standard virtual assistant (VA), but now, thanks to advanced machine learning, conversational AI can understand and answer around 70 000 different questions and more than 90% of customer enquiries in a matter of seconds. Queries Ceba can’t deal with are escalated to a live agent.

On the other side of the world in Stockholm, Swedbank’s VA has been “trained” to answer 80% of customer questions and handles 25% of all debit card replacements, freeing up contact centre agent time; and BNP Paribas Personal Finance in Spain’s VA delivers 96% accuracy in understanding queries, resulting in the volume of calls managed by contact centre agents falling by 46%.

According to Nuance’s Brenda Hodge, AI is also making inroads into the realm of personal healthcare.

She points to a recent study by OnePoll, which found that the COVID-19 pandemic had a profound effect on people’s attitudes to digital healthcare – and to the use of AI in healthcare.

More than 20% of patients surveyed no longer regard face-to-face interactions as their preferred way of receiving medical advice and 42% are now comfortable with accessing medical advice and treatment remotely.

Interestingly, more than half (57%) of those surveyed stated they were comfortable or very comfortable with AI-powered technology being used to securely record patient-doctor interactions and produce clinical documentation.

“When asked why, 57% highlighted the potential of AI to speed up appointments, 41% said they believed it would help their doctors focus more on the diagnosis, and 37% said it would lead to more accurate and detailed medical information,” Hodge says.

“This clearly indicates that patients are not just open to smarter, tech-enabled services, they’re ready to actively choose those services if they can save time while enabling their practitioner to focus on diagnosis and treatment. This gives healthcare providers a clear mandate to embrace AI-powered technologies with the potential to improve experiences for patients and clinicians alike.” 

Improved experience is also driving increasingly innovative utilisation of AI in the entertainment arena, including the highly competitive PayTV industry.

According to Nuance's Tony Lorentzen, although voice control (think Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant) has become a common functionality in recent years, providers of paid streaming services, premium channels and paid content are looking to turn voice into a value creator. They are doing this by providing their customers with a simple, personalised and secure voice-enabled entertainment experience.

“PayTV subscribers are often overwhelmed with choice. The challenge for suppliers is to make searching for relevant content easy and meaningful,” Lorentzen says.

This can be done by using natural language understanding (NLU), which is powered by the latest AI-driven speech recognition technology, to add voice searches and commands to users’ smart TV experiences. NLU, such as that utilised in Nuance’s Dragon TV, can be integrated into remotes, set-top boxes, smart speakers and even the TV itself.

In addition to flicking between channels, accessing the on-screen TV guide, bringing up subtitles and navigating their recorded content, subscribers can manage their accounts and complete transactions – all with their voice.

“Simple, secure, voice-based navigation offers subscribers greater control over their entertainment experiences. In addition, the technology can even recognise individual voices to give users personalised answers with biometric authentication,” Lorentzen adds.

Hodge maintains that the challenges of the past year contributed to the rapid growth and acceptance of AI-driven digital experiences. However, research has shown that while the majority of consumers believe that even after the pandemic, they’ll have more digital interactions than they did previously because they found their online experience to be equivalent or even better than those available face-to-face, they still want the human touch and the ability to speak to a “real human” when necessary.

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