The Chatty Bots!

Chatbots can be loosely defined as software to simulate human conversation. They are widely used as textbots or voicebots in social media, in websites to provide the initial engagement with visitors, as part of  customer service/IT operations teams to provide tier 1 support round the clock and for various other organizational needs, as we’ll see later in the blog, in integration with enterprise tools/systems. Their prevalence can be attributed to how easy it has now become to get a basic chatbot up & running quickly, using the intuitive drag-drop interfaces of chatbot build tools. There are also many cloud-based free or low-cost AI platforms for building bots using the provided APIs. Most of these platforms also come with industry-specific content, add-on tools for analytics and more.

Rule-based chatbots can hold basic conversation with scripted ‘if/then’ responses for commonly raised issues/faqs, and redirect appropriately for queries beyond their scope. They use keyword matches to get relevant information from their datastore. Culturally, as we begin to accept and trust bots to solve problems and extend support; with companies beginning to see value in these digital resources; and with heavy investments in AI technologies, chatbots are gaining traction, and becoming more sophisticated. AI-led chatbots are way more complex than their rule-based counterparts and provide dynamically tailored, contextual responses based on the conversation and interaction history. Natural Language Processing capabilities give these chatbots the human-like skill to comprehend nuances of language and gauge the intent behind what is explicitly stated.    

The Artificial Neural Network(ANN) for Natural Language Processing(NLP) 

An ANN is an attempt at a tech equivalent of the human brain! You can find our blog on ANNs and Deep Learning here.

Traditional AI models are incapable of handling highly cognitive tasks like image recognition, image classification, natural language processing, speech recognition, text-speech conversion, tone analysis and the like. There has been a lot of success with Deep Learning approaches for such cerebral use cases. For NLP, handling the inherent complexities of language such as sentiment, ambiguity or insinuation, necessitates deeper networks and a lot of training with enormous amounts of data. Each computational layer of the network progressively extracts finer and more abstract details from the inputs, essentially adding value to the learnings from the previous layers. With each training iteration, the network adapts, auto-corrects and finetunes its weights using optimization algorithms, until it reaches a maturity level where it is almost always correct in spite of input vagaries. The USP of a deep network is that, armed with this knowledge gained from training, it is able to extract correlations & meaning from even unlabeled and unstructured data.

Different types of neural networks are particularly suited for different use cases. Recurrent Neural Networks(RNNs) are good for sequential data like text documents, audio and natural language. RNNs have a feedback mechanism where each neuron’s output is fed back as weighted input, along with other inputs. This gives them ‘memory’ implying they remember their earlier inputs, but with time the inputs get diluted by the presence of new data. A variant of the RNN helps solve this problem. Long Short Term Memory (LSTM) models have neurons(nodes) with gated cells that can regulate whether to ‘remember’ or ‘forget’ their previous inputs, thereby giving more control over what needs to be remembered for a long time versus what can be forgotten. For e.g.: it would help to ‘remember’ when parsing through a text document because the words and sentences are most likely related, but ‘forgetting’ would be better during the move from one text document to the next, since they are most likely unrelated.

The Chatbot Evolution

In the 2019 Gartner CIO Survey, CIOs identified chatbots as the main AI-based application used in their enterprises. “There has been a more than 160% increase in client interest around implementing chatbots and associated technologies in 2018 from previous years”, says Van Baker, VP Analyst at Gartner.

Personal & Business communication morphs into the quickest, easiest and most convenient mode of the time. From handwritten letters to emails to phone calls to SMSs to mere status updates on social media is how we now choose to interact. Mr. Baker goes on to say that with the increase of millennials in the workplace, and their  demand for instant, digital connections, they will have a large impact on how quickly organizations adopt the technology.

Due to these evolutionary trends, more organizations than we think, have taken a leap of faith and added these bots to their workforce. It is actually quite interesting to see how chatbots are being put to innovative use, either stand-alone or integrated with other enterprise systems.

Chatbots in the Enterprise

Customer service & IT service management(ITSM) are use cases through which chatbots gained entry into the enterprise. Proactive personalized user engagement, consistency and ease of interaction, round-the-clock availability & timely address of issues have lent themselves to operational efficiency, cost effectiveness and enhanced user experience. Chatbots integrated into ITSM help streamline service, automate workflow management, reduce MTTR, and provide always-on services. They also make it easier to scale during peak usage times since they reduce the need for customers to speak with human staff, and the need to augment human resources to handle the extra load. ChatOps is the use of chatbots within a group collaboration tool where they run between the tool and the user’s applications and automate tasks like providing relevant data/reports, scheduling meetings, emailing, and ease the collaborative process between siloed teams and processes, like in a DevOps environment where they double up as the monitoring and diagnostic tool for the IT landscape.

In E-commerce, chatbots can boost sales by taking the customer through a linear shopping experience from item search through purchase. The bot can make purchase suggestions based on customer preferences gleaned from product search patterns and order history.

In Healthcare, they seamlessly connect healthcare providers, consumers and information and ease access to each other. These bot assistants come in different forms catering to specific needs like personal health coach, companion bot to provide the much-needed conversational support for patients with Alzheimer’s, confidant and therapist for those suffering from depression, symptom-checker to provide initial diagnosis based on symptoms and enable remote text or video consultation with a doctor as required and so on.

Analytics provide insights but often not fast enough for the CXO. Decision-making becomes quicker when executives can query a chatbot to get answers, rather than drilling through a dashboard. Imagine getting immediate responses to requests like Which region in the US has had the most sales during Thanksgiving? Send out a congratulatory note to the leadership in that region. Which region has had the poorest sales? Schedule a meeting with the team there. Email me other related reports of this region. As can be seen here, chatbots work in tandem with other enterprise tools like analytics tools, calendar and email to make such fascinating forays possible.

Chatbots can handle the mundane tasks of Employee Onboarding, such as verification of mandatory documents, getting required forms filled, directing them to online new-hire training and ensuring completion.

When integrated with IoT devices, they can help in Inventory Management by sending out notifications when it’s time to restock a product, tracking shipment of new orders and alerting on arrival.

Chatbots can offer Financial Advice by recommending investment options based on transactional history, current investments or amounts idling in savings accounts, alerting customer to market impact on current portfolio and so much more.

As is evident now, the possibilities of such domain-specific chatbots are endless, and what we have seen is just a sampling of their use cases!

Choosing the Right Solution

The chatbot vendor market is crowded, making it hard for buyers to fathom where to even begin. The first step is an in-depth evaluation of the company’s unique needs, constraints, main use cases and enterprise readiness. The next big step is to decide between off-the shelf or in-house solutions. An in-house build will be an exact fit to needs, but it might be difficult to get long-term management buy-in to invest in related AI technologies, compute power, storage, ongoing maintenance and a capable data science team. Off-the-shelf solutions need a lot of scrutiny to gauge if the providers are specialists who can deliver enterprise-grade chatbots. Some important considerations:

The solution should (be);

Platform & Device Agnostic so it can be built once and deployed anywhere

Have good Integration Capabilities with tools, applications and systems in the enterprise

Robust with solid security and compliance features

Versatile to handle varied use cases

Adaptable to support future scaling

Extensible to enable additional capabilities as the solution matures, and to leverage innovation to provide advanced features such as multi-language support, face recognition, integration with VR, Blockchains, IoT devices

Have a Personality! Bots with a personality add a human-touch that can be quite a differentiator. Incorporation of soft features such as natural conversational style, tone, emotion, and a dash of humor can give an edge over the competition.

About the Author:

Priya is part of the Marketing team at GAVS. She is passionate about Technology, Indian Classical Arts, Travel and Yoga. She aspires to become a Yoga Instructor some day!