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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Chatbots – speaking to the future of communications

Across the region and the wider world, a technology that could change human/machine interaction forever is gaining momentum 

In the robot revolution, chatbots are the latest development that looks set to change our lives. Murad Sezer
In the robot revolution, chatbots are the latest development that looks set to change our lives. Murad Sezer

The Australian Open marks the start of the tennis grand slam calendar in January every year and the marketing and sales efforts for the event are kicked-off a few months in advance.

For this year, the tournament, which begins on January 15, tweaked its marketing strategy slightly, and within a few weeks witnessed results far surpassing earlier efforts. Tghe organisers; tweak was to introduce a "chatbot", designed to help Tennis Australia directly sell tickets to the Australian Open 2018 via social media. And the results are 170 per cent higher sales conversions than their traditional marketing model.

Chatbots are programmes that use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to simulate human-like message-based conversation with other human users. They are usually embedded within existing chat apps, such as Facebook messenger or other similar apps. The growing development of chatbots is reducing the dependence of companies on their custom apps being downloaded by users – as most of the tasks of any native apps can now be done directly by the bots themselves, as they interact with the users – all the while remaining embedded in the more traditional messaging app. If done well, this could signal the end of the "app-era" and herald the start of the "bot-era".

But, as of now, such times are in the future.

What’s in the present though, is that chatbots are increasingly being employed by companies to reduce their dependence on human interfaces, as well as, increase efficiencies by highly contextualising bot-based conversations. The primary uses these bots are finding are in domains of marketing and customer care.

The case of the Australian Open is just one of the many success stories that are emerging from the chatbot arena. A prime example of this is the chatbot XiaoIce developed by Microsoft and deployed on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. Since its launch (in 2014), individual users have been speaking to XiaoIce, meaning "Little Ice", on an average about twice a day and it has over 850,000 followers, making it one of Weibo’s top influencers. A key reason behind XiaoIce’s success is its ability to hold meaningful and fluid conversations in a language as difficult as Chinese Mandarin, as well as its highly sophisticated image recognition capabilities, allowing users to ask image specific queries.

Similarly, the bot DoNotPay helps users in the UK and US to fill out basic legal forms in over 1,000 different categories (such as maternity leave, landlord contract violations for instance) and contest parking tickets and fines using a chat-like interface. The free service was launched in 2015 and has been dubbed the "world’s first robot lawyer". So far, the bot has helped fight over 375,000 cases and saved people over US$9.3 million in incorrect fines and fees.

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The key reason chatbots are taking off is that they help at both ends of the spectrum – the end users as well as the companies. They help users feel spoken to in a human way – making the conversations feel natural and easy. Similarly, on the enterprise side, of course, the most obvious benefits are in the increased efficiency of dealing with customer conversations, but there are quite a few other advantages as well. Bots are great also for tracking customer requests and cataloguing those needs to best fit products – resulting in potential sales uplift. Plus, they are quicker at identifying customer issues and offering proactive (almost preventive) customer care.

However, despite these obvious advantages, quite a few challenges still remain in the further integration of chatbots into our daily lives. The first and foremost is that bots rely on holding natural human-like conversation with actual humans, but for a computer program to really understand the nuances of spoken language is very challenging.

This process, called Natural Language Processing (NLP), is still in its infancy as compared with a real conversation between two people. A case in point is Facebook, which in March this year, announced that its chatbots had a 70 per cent failure rate in correctly understanding user requests without some human intervention.

Still, whatever its shortcomings, the trend of the bots is catching on the Middle East as well. Within the UAE, firms have already started to experiment with chatbots, as is the case with the courier company Aramex. The company’s Facebook-based bot offers highly customised conversations in both English and Arabic and answers shipment related questions and assesses customer satisfactions. Then there is EVA, Emirates NBD’s voice-activated chatbot for users' banking and customer care needs, which was introduced a year ago.

Similarly, in the public sector, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) has its own chatbot – called Rammas – which works with Facebook and Amazon Alexa. Dewa is one of the first UAE government organisations to use chatbots and Rammas has the aim of reducing the number of visitors to Dewa offices by 80 per cent next year.

As these examples show, the wave of chatbots is really gaining momentum in the Middle East region as well as the wider world.

And the coming year or so is expected to bring a new raft of AI-powered natural language and chatbot applications, revolutionising the way we live and work in the region, forever.

Abhinav Purohit is a UAE-based strategy consultant specialising in telecommunications, smart-city and information and communications technology.

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