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The Uncanny Valley, Open Banking and Room-Service-Ponies: A Chatbot Story

Four AI experts offered their thoughts on the future of chatbots at a recent event. Here’s what happened, and what you need to know about the coming era of AI and voice interfaces.

See the video highlights below and read on for the full roundup:

“Chat is the new browser, and bots are the new websites”

A bold claim originally from Kik CEO Ted Livingston, but one that seems to be coming to fruition. Make no mistake, the chatbot and AI era is here. It may be early days, but the AI phenomenon will only grow over time.

To shed some light on these technologies, four AI experts took to the stage to offer new opinions and insights into the development and deployment of chatbots and AI across different industries.

From Coke machine bots to digital concierge

First to give his expertise was Luke McNeice, founder of Lola Tech: a bespoke eCommerce system developer.

He set the scene with his own personal history with chatbots – from a coke machine that could tell you what it had in stock over email in 1982, to Lola’s Skype bot that lets developers spin up servers and deploy test environments directly from a chat window.

But this was all a warm up for the main event – both for Luke and Lola’s bot journey, and the event itself: Dazzle.

Razzle Dazzle

Dazzle is a new chatbot developed by Lola Tech for the hospitality industry. Based on Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, Dazzle can be deployed in hotel rooms and chat with guests to answer their queries and connect them to a range of hotel services.

Having won an Accelerator programme with the Marriot Hotel group, Dazzle was offered the chance to run a two-month beta test. The team deployed Amazon Echo Dots in ten rooms in the Marriot Hotel near the London Eye to see how users would interact with Dazzle – and collect valuable data on how to improve the experience.

At this point, Lola Tech Marketing Master Charles Cadbury took the stage to talk more about the Dazzle pilot, and give us a live demo of Dazzle in action.

In just a few minutes, Charles found out check-out times for his hotel and when breakfast was served. He asked to order slippers, and was told they’d be on their way soon. He then tried to order a pony to his room. Unsurprisingly Alexa didn’t have a response to this, but it was quick to assure the request had been passed on to the front desk, and handled its limitation gracefully.

Dazzle: The results

More interesting than seeing Dazzle in action even, was hearing about how Dazzle was used and appreciated by hotel guests during the trial.

Harry Harold, UX designer and researcher at Neon Tribe assisted in the Dazzle trial, and was on-hand throughout to offer data on how Dazzle was used.

The results had a lot to say about the promise of bots and the voice UX. Most notably, people were happy talking to Dazzle, asking questions to the bot over calling the front desk at a ratio of 2:1. Why? Harry estimates it’s because nobody wants to ask stupid questions to a human – but are happy to ask a bot what time checkout is for the millionth time.

There was also a lot of love for the experience Dazzle offered guests. One of the most used phrases by guests was “Thank you”, a clear sign guests enjoyed and respected the service they received. One man even enjoyed Dazzle so much, he handed Harry and a Marriot manager his Platinum card and offered to pay for a Dazzle-equipped Echo Dot in every room out of his own pocket.

Why chatbots?

It’s great that people are using and appreciating chatbots like Dazzle. But a key question remains: why is this tech picking up interest so quickly?

As one-to-one messaging apps continue to grow in popularity, Chatbots offer an opportunity for businesses to get in front of the billions of users on WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger and a host of other chat apps.

That was the topic of the next talk from Ben Phillips, Global Head of Mobile at Mediacom. Chatbots are a way for brands to make the most of the messaging app craze. But text is just the start. With 41% of mobile searches in the US starting with a voice query, it’s all about how chatbots can harness a voice interface.

All about the voice

Ben argued that once the voice interface is enhanced beyond just simple Q and A, and can collect data from complex, natural sentences, it will help open a range of possibilities across connected devices. Effectively, the voice interface will help unlock the promise of the Internet of Things.

This point was echoed by Darragh Jones, Director at Sapient, and the final speaker of the day.

With new legislation forcing banks to open their infrastructure to 3rd parties, we’re at a point where our financial lives will become integrated and connected to other popular apps and services. We’re already seeing banks connect with services like Digit: an SMS-based app that connects to your accounts and prompts you to save extra money over text.

And, of course, the voice interface is at the centre of connecting all these experiences. We’re seeing the likes of HSBC experimenting with voice already, recently launching voice-activated authentication. But in the future, financial services organisations are likely to take voice interfaces, and chatbot integrations further.

The time for action is now

After the talks a lengthy Q and A session with the speakers posed a range of intriguing questions on this early era of chatbot, AI and voice UX design:

  • Will brands start building Alexa skills and voice apps for the sake of it?
  • How can designers best put the user first with their chatbots?
  • What’s the best way to deal with errors or voice interface limitations?
  • Do chatbots appeal more to a particular generation?
  • When will chatbots and AI fall into the uncanny valley?
  • Will Alexa ever be able to order that pony to Charles’ room?

The room was full of questions, but there was one clear answer for all of them that marked a key theme of the event: developers need to start deploying their chatbots now. Like the Dazzle trial, the sooner they can get their bots live, the sooner they can collect the usage data that will inform the future development of the chatbot, AI and voice interface disciplines.

If you want to learn the answers to the specific questions the audience posed or talk through where the potential for this technology is for your business please get in touch.

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