Do you believe conversational assistants will change the status quo? For this column, perhaps it’s important to take closer look at how the technology is evolving and what are the ethics behind conversational AI (artificial intelligence)?

First, let’s look at what a conversational assistant is, which is also often called a “chatbot.” It is a computer program or AI designed to convincingly conduct a conversation by simulating how a human would behave as the conversational partner.

Interestingly, it’s becoming more and more normal. Analyst firm Gartner suggests many organizations are realizing the benefits of technology that allows automated self-service, especially in light of improvements in natural language processing, machine learning, and intent-matching capabilities.

As a result, many are investing in a VCA (virtual customer assistant) and chatbot technology. In fact, Gartner says 25% of customer service and support operations will integrate VCA or chatbot technology by next year.

Organizations report increased customer satisfaction and a reduction of up to 70% in call, chat, and/or email inquiries after implementing a VCA or chatbot technology. There are others that say they are netting a 33% savings per voice engagement.

So, for those that have implemented this technology, they’re saying their customers are happier, they tend to need less follow-up help, and, as a result, companies are saving money on customer service.

As more companies have success with chatbots and the technology becomes more expected by customers, and as chatbot development costs come down, the market is going to grow.

MarketsandMarkets forecasts the global conversational AI market size to grow from $4.2 billion this year to $15.7 billion by 2024.

Another thing to consider is how many people are drawn to using social-media messaging platforms for everyday communication. Increasingly, this is extending from communicating with just family and friends to communicating with brands and companies as well.

Actually, in marketing circles, the use of chatbots in this way is sometimes called “conversational marketing.” This typically refers to conversations started by customers on their own time, usually on a social media platform.

In a fast-paced world most customers don’t want to wait on hold, and they don’t even want to wait until a regular business day or regular business hours to ask questions and get answers. Conversational AI and chatbot solutions can bring an element of that 24/7 customer service without having to fully staff a call center.

What conversational assistants can do is hold one-on-one conversations with many, many, many customers at the same time. Good uses of conversational AI are more than just your typical “if-then” chatbot programming.

They actually use artificial intelligence to not only answer questions with canned responses but also ask relevant questions and provide specific feedback.

There are a couple different types of customer service solutions being used right now. The first is a flow-based chatbot. Flow-based chatbots follow a defined flow of messages based on a customer’s queries. They’re designed to get a customer to a solution. Flow patterns can be simple or complex, but either way it’s all predefined.

This type of solution doesn’t take a ton of development, and it’s effective, but it’s also relatively limited. Where I think we’re headed is more to what are known as intent-based chatbots.

These intent-based bots solve user queries on an individual basis, adapting to customer’s behavior on the fly. In addition, they become smarter and more prepared for the next conversation as it goes.

Now let’s ask the tough question: Is it ethical to create an AI that pretends to be human?

Many believe there’s no right or wrong answer to this. We’ve already established based on Gartner’s survey that people are more satisfied when they interact with a virtual customer assistant or chatbot and, apparently, they’re also getting better help, because they’re not calling or emailing back as often.

But, is it right to give someone a machine when they want, or at least think they want a human? If no, then do we let people know that they’re interacting with an AI? How?

If it’s a phone call, it may be obvious that you’re talking to an AI, and many of us have experience with this. The computer asks us to tell it why we’re calling and then responds based on what we say.

In the future though, as this technology becomes more advanced, AI could simulate a human nearly perfectly, and then what? Now that’s when it will really get interesting or somewhat scary. It just all depends on your view.

As we look further into the future, conversational AI will prove to be a big way in which we interact with machines. To be able to speak to a computer and have it not only understand what you mean, but also engage you in the conversation; and ultimately try to help you accomplish a goal, this will undoubtedly change human life as we know it. We have yet to fully understand the ramifications of this innovative technology in life and business.

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