In our work at ZipfWorks building and scaling intelligent shopping platforms and applications, we pay close attention to emerging trends impacting digital commerce such as chatbots and mobile commerce. As this nascent trend towards a more conversational commerce ecosystem unfolds at a dizzying pace, we felt it would be useful to take a step back and look at the major initiatives and forces shaping this trend and compiled them here in this report. We’ve applied some of these concepts in our current project Dealspotr, to help more shoppers save more money through intelligent use of technology and social product design.
Conversational bots “live” online and give customers a familiar experience, similar to engaging an employee or a live agent, and they can offer that experience in higher volumes. Conversational bots offer scaling—or the capability to perform equally well under an expanding workload—in ways that human can’t, assisting businesses to reach customers in a way they couldn’t before. For one, businesses have created 24/7/365 online presence through conversational bots.
“Bots go bust” — so went the first of the five AI startup predictions in 2017 by Bradford Cross, countering some recent excitement around conversational AI (see for example O’Reilly’s “Why 2016 is shaping up to be the Year of the Bot”). The main argument was that social intelligence, rather than artificial intelligence is lacking, rendering bots utilitarian and boring.
Clare.AI is a frontend assistant that provides modern online banking services. This virtual assistant combines machine learning algorithms with natural language processing. The Clare.AI algorithm is trained to respond to customer service FAQs, arrange appointments, conduct internal inquiries for IT and HR, and help customers control their finances via their favorite messaging apps (WhatsApp, Facebook, WeChat, etc.). It can even draw a chart showing customers how they’ve spent their money.
It won’t be an easy march though once we get to the nitty-gritty details. For example, I heard through the grapevine that when Starbucks looked at the voice data they collected from customer orders, they found that there are a few millions unique ways to order. (For those in the field, I’m talking about unique user utterances.) This is to be expected given the wild combinations of latte vs mocha, dairy vs soy, grande vs trenta, extra-hot vs iced, room vs no-room, for here vs to-go, snack variety, spoken accent diversity, etc. The AI practitioner will soon curse all these dimensions before taking a deep learning breath and getting to work. I feel though that given practically unlimited data, deep learning is now good enough to overcome this problem, and it is only a matter of couple of years until we see these TODA solutions deployed. One technique to watch is Generative Adversarial Nets (GAN). Roughly speaking, GAN engages itself in an iterative game of counterfeiting real stuffs, getting caught by the police neural network, improving counterfeiting skill, and rinse-and-repeating until it can pass as your Starbucks’ order-taking person, given enough data and iterations.
Tay, an AI chatbot that learns from previous interaction, caused major controversy due to it being targeted by internet trolls on Twitter. The bot was exploited, and after 16 hours began to send extremely offensive Tweets to users. This suggests that although the bot learnt effectively from experience, adequate protection was not put in place to prevent misuse.
This was a strategy eBay deployed for holiday gift-giving in 2018. The company recognized that purchasing gifts for friends and family isn’t necessarily a simple task. For many of their customers, selecting gifts had become a stressful and arduous process, especially when they didn’t have a particular item in mind. In response to this feeling, eBay partnered with Facebook Messenger to introduce ShopBot.
How far are we from building systems with commonsense? One often-heard answer is: not in the near future, while the realistic answer is: we don’t know. Last year, I spent some time trying to build a system that can do better than an information retrieval baseline in taking fourth-grade science exam (which still has a ways to go to gain a passing score of 65%). I failed hard. Here’s an example to get a sense of the difficulty of these questions.
What does the Echo have to do with conversational commerce? While the most common use of the device include playing music, making informational queries, and controlling home devices, Alexa (the device’s default addressable name) can also tap into Amazon’s full product catalog as well as your order history and intelligently carry out commands to buy stuff. You can re-order commonly ordered items, or even have Alexa walk you through some options in purchasing something you’ve never ordered before.
If you visit a Singapore government website in the near future, chances are you’ll be using a chatbot to access the services you need, as part of the country’s Smart Nation initiative. In Australia, Deakin University students now access campus services using its ‘Genie’ virtual assistant platform, made up of chatbots, artificial intelligence (AI), voice recognition and predictive analytics.
…utilizing chat, messaging, or other natural language interfaces (i.e. voice) to interact with people, brands, or services and bots that heretofore have had no real place in the bidirectional, asynchronous messaging context. The net result is that you and I will be talking to brands and companies over Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack, and elsewhere before year’s end, and will find it normal.
An AI-powered chatbot is a smarter version of a chatbot (a machine that has the ability to communicate with humans via text or audio). It uses natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) to get a better understanding of the intent of humans it interacts with. Also, its purpose is to provide a natural, as near human-level communication as possible.
[…] But how can simple code assimilate something as complex as speech in only the span of a handful of years? It took humans hundreds of generations to identify, compose and collate the English language. Chatbots have a one up on humans, because of the way they dissect the vast data given to them. Now that we have a grip on the basics, we’ll understand how chatbots work in the next series. […]
As retrieved from Forbes, Salesforce’s chief scientist, Richard Socher talked in a conference about his revelations of NLP and machine translation: “I can’t speak for all chatbot deployments in the world – there are some that aren’t done very well…but in our case we’ve heard very positive feedback because when a bot correctly answers questions or fills your requirements it does it very, very fast.
As AOL's David Shingy writes in Adweek, "The challenge [with chatbots] will be thinking about creative from a whole different view: Can we have creative that scales? That customizes itself? We find ourselves hurtling toward another handoff from man to machine -- what larger system of creative or complex storytelling structure can I design such that a machine can use it appropriately and effectively?"
“It’s hard to balance that urge to just dogpile the latest thing when you’re feeling like there’s a land grab or gold rush about to happen all around you and that you might get left behind. But in the end quality wins out. Everyone will be better off if there’s laser focus on building great bot products that are meaningfully differentiated.” — Ryan Block, Cofounder of Begin.com
This is a lot less complicated than it appears. Given a set of sentences, each belonging to a class, and a new input sentence, we can count the occurrence of each word in each class, account for its commonality and assign each class a score. Factoring for commonality is important: matching the word “it” is considerably less meaningful than a match for the word “cheese”. The class with the highest score is the one most likely to belong to the input sentence. This is a slight oversimplification as words need to be reduced to their stems, but you get the basic idea.
Speaking ahead of the Gartner Application Architecture, Development & Integration Summit in Sydney, Magnus Revang, research director at Gartner, said the broad appeal of chatbots stems from the efficiency and ease of interaction they create for employees, customers or other users. The potential benefits are significant for enterprises and shouldn’t be ignored.
One pertinent field of AI research is natural language processing. Usually, weak AI fields employ specialized software or programming languages created specifically for the narrow function required. For example, A.L.I.C.E. uses a markup language called AIML, which is specific to its function as a conversational agent, and has since been adopted by various other developers of, so called, Alicebots. Nevertheless, A.L.I.C.E. is still purely based on pattern matching techniques without any reasoning capabilities, the same technique ELIZA was using back in 1966. This is not strong AI, which would require sapience and logical reasoning abilities.