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IBM Watson CTO: A range of conversational technologies can coexist

IBM Watson VP and CTO Rob High explains why there's space for both conversational agents and chatbots in the enterprise, with each bringing a different level of utility.

Conversational agents are typically smarter than chatbots, but does that mean they will soon edge out their dimmer brethren? Rob High, vice president and CTO at IBM Watson and an IBM Fellow, says there's room -- and usefulness -- for both in the realm of conversational technologies.

In part one of this two-part Q&A with High, he detailed how a conversational agent is different from a chatbot and a virtual assistant. Here, he delves into the business value of supporting conversational technologies that augment human intelligence, require extensive training and evolve and those, like chatbots, that keep doing the same task well.

Do you see chatbots and conversational agents evolving side-by-side, or do you see one overtaking the other?

rob high, ibm watsonRob High

Rob High: I think both are useful for their own purposes and, to some extent, there's a continuum. But there's certainly a demarcation when it comes to the philosophy of what you're trying to do, the tools that you need to be able to do it with and the underlying technologies that are necessary to enable it.

I could imagine a world where chatbots are just chatbots, and they do what they've done and they do it well but they don't do much more than that. There may be a use for that, but [I could imagine] other places where there's a lot of utility in going beyond just simply the chatbot to help people with their problems. A lot of that is driven by what kind of utility is called for.

We believe at IBM that the real purpose of AI is to augment human intelligence, not to replace human intelligence. When you think about that, you begin to realize that augmenting human cognition requires getting into a deeper level of understanding of a human and being able to recognize what problems they're trying to get to in a conversation space. [AI] must recognize that humans express themselves in sometimes very subtle ways and that the intention behind that expression is something that requires a certain degree of reasoning.

I could imagine a world where chatbots are just chatbots, and they do what they've done and they do it well but they don't do much more than that.

The systems have to be trained; you can't just program them to be able to do all these things. They have to learn. Ultimately, they have to interact with us like we're humans. They have to know something about the fact that as humans, we have emotions and our emotions can vary throughout the course of a conversation. [Conversational agents] have to know how to interact with somebody in order to amplify their thinking. There's more to it than just what you typically see today as a chatbot.

So I think both will continue to exist, but a demarcation will occur between those simple things that people can do quickly and easily without a whole lot of additional exploration, versus those situations in which there's a lot of economic value in amplifying human cognition.

How can conversational technologies like agents and chatbots drive business value? What's their potential in the enterprise?

High: I think chatbots may be an entry point for almost any enterprise. It's hard to operate an enterprise without having some kind of interface to your clients, even the simplest of interfaces like those that might occur when you're carrying your smartphone around with you. Almost every institution out there is trying to engage their clients at a deeper level. Part of that is about getting to know your clients better so that you can serve them better and part of it is about trying to create a higher degree of trust and loyalty. Some of it is about trying to deal with the burgeoning growth in call center expenses as more and more of these relationships drive more hand-holding or deep touch.

I think all of that is conspiring to suggest that going into the digital age, enterprises can only be successful if they're thinking about employing these conversational agents as a way of augmenting their own staff, but even more so, augmenting the intelligence of their staff and their relationship with their clients and augmenting the intelligence of the clients to create a stronger relationship with the institution.

This was last published in February 2018

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