Talking Tech: Why Conversational AI Is the Interface of the Future

Artificial Intelligence is driving the development of platforms that enable machines to interact more like humans.

In 2018, a number of evolving technologies are set to disrupt businesses across all sectors, and forward-thinking enterprises need to keep up with these developments in order to stay competitive. The technology set to make the most impact this year is AI, which enables businesses to gather unprecedented data insights that can help them to streamline operations and boost profits.

Also making waves is voice control, with virtual assistants like Siri*, Cortana* and Alexa* helping to bring the concept into the mainstream. And with ComScore* predicting that by 2020, 50 percent of all searches will be voice searches, the trend is set to continue. “We’re on the path to a post-Qwerty, post-touchscreen world,” says Jon Stine, Global Director Retail Sales at Intel in a blog post. “Most of us will talk to our devices, not tap them”.

“We’re on the path to a post-Qwerty, post-touchscreen world. Most of us will talk to our devices, not tap them”

But while basic voice recognition can enable hands-free operation of our devices, advanced conversational AI could actually enable machines to talk back to us in a more human way. “As the Artificial Intelligence beneath our devices acquires more and more knowledge, our devices will not only answer questions… but begin to deliver conversation; comprised not only of noun-verb commands but full sentences. Filled with inflection and emotion. Which opens the door to an enormously deeper understanding of shopper interactions and experiences,” says Stine.

This kind of AI-powered conversational interface could completely redefine the customer experience. There has already been a shift in this direction with the rise of text-based chatbots. In 2016, Facebook* launched a developer-friendly platform for creating chatbots for its Messenger* service and there is now a wide range available, including one that enables the user to easily order pizza, along with a trial ‘bot from the UK’s National Health Service that can respond to patients reporting their symptoms.

However, the open nature of the platform means that quality control is low, and lots of simplistic and ultimately useless chatbots have been launched. There are plenty of good examples, but even these are limited to linear interactions, usually based on a ring-fenced selection of set questions and answers. The next step is to develop AI-enhanced chatbots that are capable of looking at queries in context and providing more human-like responses, rather than simply picking from a list of pre-determined answers.

One example of how this technology is already being tested is CherryBot* from English Premier League* club AFC Bournemouth*. Operating on Messenger, this prototype chatbot was developed using sophisticated AI technologies including emotion recognition. Developed by Microsoft* and digital agency Greenwood Campbell*, CherryBot was designed to interact with fans to enhance their match day experience by offering facts and FAQs, along with the ability to watch video highlights and vote for their man of the match.

While this shows how technology can be used to add personality and a natural feel to a useful interface, the next step is to bring voice into the equation. As the technology improves, we’ll see more AI-powered voice interfaces surfacing. Along with the ability to understand more complex human speech, these will have additional learning abilities and will be able to ‘remember’ and make reference to previous conversations and transactions.

Not only will they improve customer interactions by making them more human, they will also reduce customer service costs by providing an automated response for entry-level requests. This, combined with voice search will effectively see the beginning of an entirely new sales channel in the retail sector. By 2021, early adopter brands that redesign their websites to support visual and voice search will increase digital commerce revenue by 30 percent, predicts Gartner*1.

The rise of AI and conversational voice interfaces will require the development of new AI-capable hardware that can cope with the growing data demands, such as the Intel® Nervana™ Neural Network Processors (NNP). Intel is also developing a self-learning chip, codenamed Loihi. This prototype chip is designed to mimic the way the brain functions – learning based on the feedback its gets from its environment. “We believe AI is in its infancy and more architectures and methods – like Loihi – will continue emerging that raise the bar for AI,” said Dr. Michael Mayberry, corporate vice president and managing director of Intel Labs, in an editorial.

While there is clearly still some way to go before voice-based interfaces become the norm, it’s important for businesses to consider how they could disrupt their industry and maybe even how they could incorporate them into their own operations. The development of AI-based conversation platforms is set to accelerate this year, especially in the retail sector and in customer service scenarios. While it may take some time for early versions of the technology to be trialled and perfected, AI-powered voice is the interface of the future.

*Other names and brands may be claimed as the property of others

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