Irish Examiner: Human robots prepare to take on customer service

With robots able to gobble up data and spit out answers more quickly than humans, they have already been hired to take up roles in customer support.

A study by Oxford University and Deloitte found that UK jobs in customer service were one of the top 50 occupations at risk of becoming automated by robotics.

But even as bots break into the mainstream, humans are still needed to deal with customers, according to Liam Keegan, a content marketing specialist at XSellco, an Irish company that offers help desk and repricing technology to online retailers.

“At the moment, bots are good at cutting out the really basic, low-hanging fruit in customer support… Basically, bots are just a fancy version of automated responders on telephones,” Mr Keegan says.

They are good at dealing with mind-numbing, repetitive customer queries. Where they fail is in their ability to process empathy and “the human stuff”.

If the customer is angry, an automated response is not going to appease them for long.

Add any degree of complexity and automated responders won’t work, Mr Keegan explains.

“There are a lot of semantic technologies being developed to make machine learning better, to make artificial intelligence better, to understand human language. But we’re nowhere near that being applied in a business situation,” he says.

Humans are still much better at dealing with complex queries. It’s likely to stay that way for some time. Large companies are, however, investing heavily in the potential for ‘chat bots’.

Facebook rolled out a bots service in its Messenger app earlier this year. And Mr Keegan believes that smaller companies will also dabble in “bot life”.

These firms could be a testing ground because the bots could work for them in dealing with repetitive tasks such as maintaining a presence on social media.

If bots work for firms at this level, they could start using them more widely across their business.

The process is likely to be slow, however. “Once we have a template that works across the board, I think you’ll see it become more prevalent across small and medium sized businesses,” Mr Keegan says.

Tom Richards, group product manager at Intercom, the Irish tech start-up that creates live chat and marketing services, says using bots will not necessarily replace human interaction.

Bots could help humans to put their “best foot forward” and resolve issues more quickly.

“I think that interactions with customers can be a really complex workflow. Before you have any of theses interactions or while you’re trying to juggle loads of them at once in a customer support context, you have to learn a lot about the things that are happening in that customer’s life that leads them to the question they have. Bots are going to be great at being able to set that context for humans,” Mr Richards says.

“They’re going to be able to give humans a real leg-up inside the support tools they use while talking to customers, so they can focus on the conversation rather than the administrative tasks,” he adds.

Professor Barry O’Sullivan — the director of the insight centre for data analytics at University College Cork and the incoming vice-chair of the European Association for Artificial Intelligence — says that though artificial intelligence is developing at a fast pace, the process is still slow.

“One of the very early innovators in artificial intelligence and winner of the Nobel Prize, Herbert Simon, once said that ‘Machines will be capable … of doing any work a man can do.’ I believe that Simon was right, but we’re several decades away from this,” Prof O’Sullivan says.

There are already a number of systems able to carry out many semi-professional and customer-facing jobs.

But he warns to expect “a fundamental change in the nature of work over the coming years”. The social effects will need to be carefully assessed.

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner on August 2, 2016.

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Irish Examiner: Marketing gurus catch a ride on Pokémon Go craze

Marketers will have to catch ‘em quick if they want to capitalise on the Pokémon Go craze.

Savvy retailers have already taken advantage of the game’s augmented reality function, where digital graphics are viewed in the real world through a smartphone camera.

In a bid to entice gamers to congregate at their shopfronts and boost footfall, businesses can use “lures” to increase the number of Pokémon characters in an area for a set period of time.

But simply dropping lures and hoping for the best is not enough for small businesses, according to Ellen Ryan, managing director of Yellow Machine, a communications firm specialising in the 18 to 35-year-old demographic.

“Create a bit of a buzz in your store with an event. You might have discounts around the store and have some goodies to give away. There is a small spend through the app, but you can really leverage that yourself and drive it to the next level by doing these incentives.”

Other brick and mortar businesses could use the game to attract attention and showcase their services too, she suggested.

“There are an awful lot of brands looking to capitalise on it,” said David Hayes, director of social search and performance media at digital agency, In The Company of Huskies.

“A lot of people want to just piggyback on something to make themselves look relevant. It’s like any major event. People will see through that.”

He argues that because Pokémon Go is a location-based app, brands that are somehow connected to mobility, such as businesses in the leisure, tourism or retail sectors, will benefit the most.

“One of our clients is Fáilte Ireland. We would be suggesting proactive pieces around [the game] because we think it is applicable to tourism.”

The Youth Lab, part of Thinkhouse youth marketing agency, has also explored opportunities Pokémon Go offers to brands, especially those looking to reach the coveted millennial market through “nostalgia culture”.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Claire Hyland, director of insights at The Youth Lab, explained young people have this sense of sentimentality “because we’re in such a fast-paced, instant, everything-now world.

“Things are fleeting in so many ways that young people can actually have a nostalgia for something that happened six months ago or a year ago.”

She said that Pokémon Go’s ability to project the game into real-life scenarios makes it similar to the image messaging app Snapchat, which is largely associated with the youth market.

For advertisers, in-game promotions are certainly not a new concept but has largely consisted of pop-ups, that tend to irritate players.

It is hoped augmented reality will help solve this problem: Snapchat recently filed a patent for an ad-overlay system that turns messages into ads. For example, if a user takes a picture of their latte, a coffee brand’s logo will appear as a suggested filter.

With Pokémon Go and other augmented reality games, big brands should look to reach people using similar techniques that don’t intrude on the overall experience.

“The key thing is that [advertisements] don’t take away from the game,” said Eddy Danielsson, Gamestop’s director of merchandising, marketing and e-commerce for Northern Europe.

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner on July 25, 2016.

My top 7 travel tech start-ups

Exhibitors at Web Summit 2015
Exhibitors at Web Summit 2015
Image: Sportfile

More than 2,000 start-ups exhibited at this year’s Web Summit, all vying to become tech’s next big thing. Over 100 registered as travel start-ups.

Here are the top seven that caught my attention.

1. RunGo

The ultimate travel tool for joggers, RunGo offers turn-by-turn voice navigation, so you can easily explore a city without having to consult a map. You don’t have to disrupt the flow of your run, and the app will give you additional tips on the best pubs, cafes and attractions. Plus creating and sharing running routes is really easy. The RunGo team is interested in partnering with hotels. Visit rungoapp.com.

2. BimBim Bikes

An online booking platform for bike rentals, BimBim Bikes is already live in 39 countries. It’s a straightforward system that allows you search for biking options, make your payment online, book particular tours and request specific bikes. BimBim is interested in becoming an ancillary add-on to the existing travel trade. Visit bimbimbikes.com.

3. 360Visualizer

A sophisticated tool for hoteliers, 360Visualizer allows its users to control visual content and communicate products to clients. If you want to entice a guest to buy a room upgrade, why not give them a 360 degree tour of what you can offer them? The technology is already live in certain Radisson Blu, Barceló Hotels & Resorts, and Holiday Inn properties. Visit 360visualizer.com.

4. Sitata

The travel trade is constantly having to battle with scaremongering in the media, so Sitata is a welcomed project. It offers travellers localised safety information and other nuggets, like advice on vaccinations for particular areas, routes to hospitals and advice for what to do in an  emergency. Visit sitata.com.

5. Gaybrhood

An Irish start-up, Gaybrhood is looking to establish itself in the growing LGBT tourist market. Very simply, it offers gay-friendly guides to cities, with tips created by its users, presented in a visually pleasing way. Visit gaybrhood.com

6. Muzenly

For the more adventurous traveller, Muzenly allows music festival-goers to source lifts, extra tickets and shared accommodation. Visit muzenly.com.

7. Fripito

How many travellers have bought a ridiculously expensive camera, but have no idea how to use it? Fripito offers professional advice for amateur photographers. It tells you the best sites to take pictures in any listed location. It tells you the best time of day to shoot and what settings to use on your camera so you can create amazing photographs. Visit fripito.com.

Also worth checking out

Travel Translation, easiway, Wapple, Valido, ParkingSlot, Sure, and Gypsy Circle.

Read Travel Extra’s special digital pull-out, the Summit Supplement.

Is the future of travel in the past?

Jacki Ford Morie speaking at the Web Summit
Jacki Ford Morie speaking at the Web Summit
Image: Sportfile

There is little doubt that virtual reality will become an  increasingly advanced tool for exploring the world, but what purpose will it serve when it comes to physical travel?

Jacki Ford Morie thinks VR is here to enhance travel.

With her project, the Augmented Traveler, she hopes to make history come alive on your smartphone, tablet and, eventually, see-through wearable device:

“When you’re travelling around, you don’t want to be putting something on your face to experience a location,” Morie says. “I mean, after all, you go to the location so that you actually can absorb some of the atmosphere of that place. But what if, when you went to these historic places, you could travel back in time and actually see characters from a distant time appear as if they were in front of you, talking as if they were living their lives and doing the things they did back then?”

That’s where the PastPort app comes in. It’s your — you guessed it — passport to the past.

The characters in the app will appear fully rendered and animated and will perform a three-minute story with some narration to help you understand the history of a specific site.

“So, say it’s Leonardo [da Vinci] and his assistant Salai, and they’ve come to Venice in 1499 to sell the prince a war machine. Now, there’s a lot of historical facts that are correct there, but we take some liberties and we say he’s sitting there in the courtyard with this machine and he sets it off. He goes ‘Let’s test it now, Salai.’ So, they set off the crossbow — which doesn’t shoot arrows, unbelievably, it shoots firey cannonballs — and the firey cannonball goes over you head and out to the bay where the Turks are moored. You’re living the story a little bit.”

Eventually — Morie says five or six years down the line — the characters will be intelligible agents. In other words, you’ll be able to ask Leonardo to take a selfie with you.

These things take time, and the technology is not up to scratch just yet.

“We have a lot of challenges with this particular application because augmented travel is not at that level of sophistication yet,” Morie says. “There are a number of technologies that still have to be created for this.”

But what stage are we at now? How real is this virtual world?

“We’re working on the first story for Leonardo and Venice,” Morie says. “We’ve had him modelled in 3D and his assistant. We’ve had them dressed and we’ve had them rigged, so we’ve got an animator working on the animation… We’re working on the user interface design for the application on your mobile device, and then we’ll put it all together…

“We want to show the viability of the product, we want to take it to Venice and do a focus group there, but we really need some venture money to go into full production. I’m planning eight story vignettes for the launch.”

The Augmented Traveler is intended to be a travel companion, not a replacement for real-life travel.

“It gives you that little bit of information that makes you feel like an insider. And people want to know, they want these cultural experience… I think it’s going to change our expectations for travel. It’s going to make it much more personal and much more real and make it more memorable.”

For the travel industry, the same technology could be used to allow a client to “try” a location or hotel before they buy. It could also create new possibilities for disabled travellers who otherwise wouldn’t be able to take part in certain activities.

“I think we haven’t even started to scratch [the surface],” Morie says. “I mean, it’s me and a team of three people. So that’s it right now. But the dream is pretty cool. I really hope it comes true.”

Jacki Ford Morie in conversation with Mary Aiken
Jacki Ford Morie in conversation with Mary Aiken
Image: Sportfile

Read Travel Extra’s special digital pull-out, the Summit Supplement.

Hailing the eternal taxi ride

Jorge Pilo is co-CEO of Easy Taxi, the  e-hailing app that has seven million users in 30 countries. 

Founded in 2011, the service currently has 155,000 taxi drivers on its books, 50,000 of which are based in Brazil alone.

In fact, most of the business is focussed in Latin America, where Easy Taxi holds the dominant position as a safe and reliable tool to hail a cab.

“Supply is plentiful in Latin America,” Pilo says. “There are enough taxis in Lima, in Mexico City, in Sao Paulo. So the question is, how do you pick the best? The solution we’re bringing people is: we give you a taxi fast, which is safe and which you can trust. And you can pay with a credit card. It’s all about safety and convenience.”

Users can also monitor where their taxi is and check that it has been dispatched.

The service benefits the drivers too. They can take safer passengers, work less hours and get more rides.

“No-one becomes a driver in Latin America without going to Easy Taxi and registering,” Pilo claims. “And they come to us for a good reason. We’ve managed to get them to work 30 per cent less and make 30 per cent more. So, for the driver, the benefit is marvellous. He doesn’t have to be sitting by the road waiting for somebody to show up or driving around empty looking for a fare.

“They might start the day going to their spot where they’ll pick up their first passenger. Most of the time, they never come back [to their spot]. They just drop the first passenger off, and turn on the app. We call this the ‘eternal ride’.”

The app also gives them the chance to handle company accounts that have largely gone to local taxi firms in the past.

“A big percentage of rides are paid by companies…There were a bunch of taxis that didn’t have access to those rides. Now we have an agreement with these companies and [they can access] our entire base of taxis. So taxis now have access to more demand.”

The key to Easy Taxi’s success is its ability to diversify itself to local markets.

“Taxi is not a country business; it’s a city business. So Abuja is going to be different from Riyadh, which is going to be different from Sao Paulo, which is going to be different from Lima. What we’ve been capable of is localising our business… It’s a process that we’ve been able hone and improve and learn from every city.

“One of the things we’ve done particularly well is allowing cash payments in our ecosystem. Because of the regions we are in, cash payments are still very, very relevant. Credit card penetration is not there yet, so you have to allow people to request taxis and pay in cash. That’s the only way you can massify the business.”

Easy Taxi is now available in 300 cities, but you won’t find it in Ireland any time soon.

“In terms of Latin America, we’re really focusing on strengthening our position. We are already in a very large region, so we’re focussing on getting all the supple. We are now in all of the capitals and most of the second tier cities in all of the countries — in Brazil we’ve even gone to third tier cities — so I think the expansion will come from maximising those cities. The penetration  of e-hailing is still limited. there is still a huge potential. The process now is getting the word out and convincing more  people to stop hailing off the street and instead going through the app.”

Read Travel Extra’s special digital pull-out, the Summit Supplement.

Até Logo, Dublin — Web Summit Leaves for Lisbon

Paddy Cosgrave makes his closing remarks at the final Web Summit in Dublin Image: Sportfile
Paddy Cosgrave makes his closing remarks at the final Web Summit in Dublin
Image: Sportfile

Perhaps it wasn’t the biggest show in town, but Web Summit is a major cultural loss for Dublin.

Paddy Cosgrave’s closing speech at the final Web Summit in Dublin for the foreseeable future was much more hopeful than the earlier squabbling on the airwaves would have suggested.

“Ireland will always be in our hearts,” he said, promising that Web Summit will remain an Irish company, headquartered in Dublin.

“We’re leaving, but we’re very hopeful that the door will remain open, and I hope that some day we return.”

He seemed genuine, but it might be too late for the Government to pick things up; there was a lot of potential bridge-burning after the discourse reduced to nothing more than an embarrassing slagging match.

One thing is for certain, Cosgrave jabbed a hole in Dublin’s aspiration to win big events. Despite the heavy criticism, Web Summit is worth reclaiming as a Dublin event. But if it has outgrown the capital in 2015, what will things be like in three years’ time?

Read Travel Extra’s special digital pull-out, the Summit Supplement.