Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Can virtual agents replace contact centre staff?

The US Defense department is currently investigating the development of virtual parents to allow children to communicate online with parents who are on active duty.

Reported by Nextgov in the article, Military hoping chat bots can comfort children when parents deployed, the article states that,
the military says it's seeking to "develop a highly interactive PC- or Web-based application to allow family members to verbally interact with 'virtual' renditions of deployed Service Members."

While the idea of faking out your children with a comforting AI may sound bizarre, other applications of this type of technology could save organisations significant costs, while maintaining or even improving service standards.

Rather than a virtual parent, consider a virtual contact centre staff, sophisticated enough to engage a human customer online via text chat and address their enquiry.

Termed a 'chatbot', 'online agent' or 'virtual assistant', these applications have been been in use for a number of years now to facilitate human interactions and perform basic administrative tasks.

The original concept comes from an application named 'ELIZA', developed in 1966. Quoting the Wikipedia entry,
[Eliza] parodied a Rogerian therapist, largely by rephrasing many of the patient's statements as questions and posing them to the patient. Thus, for example, the response to "My head hurts" might be "Why do you say your head hurts?" The response to "My mother hates me" might be "Who else in your family hates you?" ELIZA was named after Eliza Doolittle, a working-class character in George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, who is taught to speak with an upper class accent.

While ELIZA was very basic, depending on the entries by the human in the conversation it could remarkably simulate a human for minutes at a time. You can give a copy of the original ELIZA a go online at Eliza test.

Over the last 40 years these types of applications have developed significantly, modern systems are very complex and able to learn how to mimic an individual by 'watching' how they engage online, such as MyCyberTwin.

They can also draw from a database or FAQ system to answer specific questions and learn how to become better at answering questions over time.

The ATO demonstrated a version last year at the ATO showcase and several companies now offer very mature and widely used chatbot technologies for supporting customer service initiatives.

These include eGain and Colloquis (owned by Microsoft).

A number of organisations already use chatbots for customer service in their sites. In the public sector this includes Almere City Council in Holland, Eurail and the US army. Commercially it includes organisations such as Ford and Ikea.

A list of some of the organisations currently using chatbots is hosted at

While no chatbots have successfully passed the Turing test to win the Loebner Prize, over a short specific conversation, such as an enquiry to a government office, modern chatbots may provide an effective first level of support, backed up by humans where necessary to address complex scenarios outside the chatbot's programming.

Is anyone in the Australian public sector currently looking at using chatbots to supplement their online (or phone) customer service?

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