Exercise in frustration: Microsoft is exchanging its foreign customer service agents for chatbots
By Frances Bloomfield // Sep 30, 2017

After taking over our manufacturing jobs, artificial intelligence is now poised to muscle in on another ubiquitous industry: customer service. Technology behemoth Microsoft has created a virtual assistant that companies can use to handle customer service requests. This AI chatbot is the newest and first product in a line of up-and-coming software that lets artificial intelligence take care of the daily needs of businesses.


According to the DailyMail.co.uk, the bot has been designed to let customers describe their issues in their own words, and then respond to the customers' problems with recommendations from user manuals and help documents. Customers have the option to speak with a human customer-care representative, while the bot is relegated to assisting the human agent. Managers can then view the results of the exchange on a dashboard overview.

Macy's, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft itself have already begun using the bot, with Hewlett-Packard having used the technology months before its official launch in July. Hewlett-Packard operating officer Jon Flaxman has gone on record to state that the chatbot now takes care of 600 million support calls in a year, and has increased the company's resolution rates.

Microsoft is but one of several companies that offers AI solutions, though it hopes that its own product will become a cheaper alternative to the bots already being offered by Google, IBM, and Amazon. IBM, in particular, already provides a chatbot intended for use in specific commercial enterprises, while Microsoft is widening their own chatbot's applications by keeping its capabilities as general as possible.

“We're trying to come up with a model we believe is most efficient in terms of how quickly AI can get results,” said Gurdeep Singh Pall, head of AI solutions at Microsoft. (Related: Beat that traffic ticket with the help of the world’s first robot lawyer.)

As of this writing, Microsoft has yet to announce the chatbot's pricing and the timelines for installation.

A recipe for disaster?

Van Baker, a researcher at advisory firm Garner Inc., stated that chatbots are well and ready to become rote in the customer service industry. “There’s huge interest from enterprises in deploying chatbots for customer service. The intent usually is to reduce cost by reducing head count,” Baker remarked, then added that upwards of 90 percent of enterprises have already begun looking into chatbots.

What these companies seem to forget, however, is that artificial intelligence simply can't match human nuances, an absolute essential in a trade that's all about communication and interaction. There's no denying that an AI chatbot can easily answer basic questions and assist in common problems, but will they be able to provide solutions to complex situations while calming down furious customers?

That's something that Daniel Polani, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Hertfordshire, England, has written about and an issue that these companies should keep in mind.

“Sometimes angry customers need kind words and the chance to express themselves to someone willing to listen, as well as or even sometimes instead of actually having their problem resolved,” Polani wrote in his article. “This would be very hard for AI to replicate because it depends so heavily on the context of the situation. In my opinion, context understanding is still one of the major elusive and unsolved problems of AI, and is likely to remain so for quite a few years to come.”

Polani cited a personal experience with a local taxi company as an example. He explained how the automated service he was dealing with was “completely unable to understand the pickup location” no matter how many naming and pronunciation variations he went through. When he was finally put through to a human representative, Polani was immediately sent back to the automated service. He ended taking a “very long walk” to his intended destination until he was picked up by a taxi with a human driver.

Are you prepared to deal with the same frustrations as Polani?

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