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Chatbots are annoyingly familiar to anyone who has shopped online. The distracting little box on the bottom right of your screen saying chirpily, “Hello! My name is Anna. Can I help you?”. What I find most irritating is the fact that they make it seem like there is actually a real live person at the other end, when everyone knows that it’s just a computer program.
Well, however much I find chatbots irritating I’d better get used to them. Over 10,000 developers are already developing artificial intelligence chatbots according to this article published last year. In fact, Juniper Research says chatbots will save companies $20 million in 2017 and that number could stretch to $8 billion a year by 2022. In India, companies like Ticketgoose, Intex Smartphones and even banking giants like HDFC, SBI and IDBI are already using chatbots to interact with their customers. The inability of chatbots to understand or communicate emotion however, has left many users, like me, decidedly underwhelmed with their experience. This has created an opportunity for a newer class of chatbots with greater emotional intelligence or those that are more human.
Chatbots that closely mimic humans have been the goal since the very first chatbot, Eliza. Created in 1966 by German/American computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum, Eliza was designed to act as a therapist, asking open ended questions and then responding with follow ups, all with the goal of tricking users into believing they were having a conversation with a real human. Eliza was succeeded by other chatbots with unlikely names like Parry, Racter and culminating in the Alice in Wonderland inspired Jabberwacky in 2005. All this before the current crop of chatbots began to take over.
Infusing AI with emotional intelligence could prove particularly meaningful to the Indian market. The same article that says that consumers are underwhelmed with chatbots says that 43% of the respondents in the study further prefer female chatbots because the female tone Is perceived as more compassionate and caring.
Crucial to filling the gap that currently exists is newer AI technology that can analyse consumer tone and intention based on language and exhibit greater emotional intelligence in their responses. IBM’s AI project Watson has attempted to address this by integrating a “Tone Analyzer” in their software that offers suggestions for agents on when to be more polite, sympathetic or even excited. Another start-up, New Zealand’s Soul Machines is attempting compete in this space with their offering, Nadia. Voiced by actress Cate Blanchett, Nadia can not only portray human-like emotions but also read your facial expressions via a webcam to decode your emotional state completing the feedback loop that’s been missing with AI thus far.
Imagine that approach coupled with technology like Wysa, an emotional wellness AI chatbot from India’s Touchkin. Their “happiness buddy” pops up as a chubby penguin that can talk you through mindfulness meditation, lead you though exercises and even chat with you about your feelings. The human impact this could potentially be life-saving. Wysa can generate a summary of your emotions and behaviour and offer suggestions, even recommending a doctor if it senses depression. I can easily see how people could take to Wysa in a heartbeat – it seems to be like a fitness trainer-therapist that you can have at your beck and call - though how satisfying such a relationship will be is debatable.
Experts say emotional intelligence will emerge as a driving force behind next generation AI. That could revolutionize things for enterprise, lead to more sales and even more accurate/cost-effective customer service. But can these bots ever mimic that intangible communion one feels with another person? Perhaps not anytime soon. Chatbots like Wysa are designed to be a shoulder to cry on, but I can’t imagine that they will replace a real human-to-human interaction.
At least, I hope not.