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Who's talking? Conversational agent vs. chatbot vs. virtual assistant

Think a conversational agent, chatbot and virtual assistant are the same? Think again. IBM Watson VP and CTO Rob High explains the distinction between the terms.

We've all seen instances where terms like "chatbot," "virtual assistant" and "conversational agent" have been used interchangeably, but do those terms really describe the same thing? Not according to Rob High, vice president and CTO at IBM Watson and an IBM Fellow. High recently explained to SearchCIO the subtle but distinct differences between those three conversation-based technology terms and the intent behind them. In part one of this two-part Q&A, High describes how the extent to which these technologies engage the user is key to understanding their differences.

What are the distinctions between terms like chatbot, conversational agent, virtual assistant, etc.?

Rob High: All those terms are used kind of loosely, there are lots of examples in which the terms have been used interchangeably. At IBM, we tend to think of these things somewhat distinctively, and it largely has to do with the degree to which they engage the end user in solving the problem.

rob high, ibm watson, cto, fellowRob High

A simple example of this is that there are a lot of chatbots out there today that operate on what we call a single-turn exchange. Somebody says something like "Alexa, turn on the lights" or "OK Google, what's the tallest mountain in the world?" Those are independent, single-turn exchanges. The end-user expresses an utterance, the utterance is interpreted or recognized for its intent, and then that intent is mapped onto a specific task.

That's all good, but when somebody asks "what's my account balance?" they may need to know what their account balance is, but that's really not their problem. Their problem is that they're getting ready to buy something or they're trying to figure out how to save up for their kid's education or they're trying to figure out how to pay their bills -- there's something behind the question.

In my mind, a conversational agent is one that engages the end-user into really understanding the nature of the problem behind the question. Part of that includes determining when it's appropriate to dig in deeper, but also recognizing that often there is a bigger problem there and being prepared to go to the next level and solicit end users to better understand the problem. Sometimes [conversational agents] have to help [end users] figure out for themselves what the problem is, because sometimes we'll just go in with a question and we don't really know what it is that we're after.

A conversational agent is one that engages the end-user into really understanding the nature of the problem behind the question.

This is especially important when you're dealing with customer support or servicing a product because if you're having a problem with something that you bought, the first thing that you need to do is describe the problem, but that might just be describing the symptoms and not necessarily the real issue.

It's going to take more than that to figure out what is really going on with the product and what is the issue and whether it's a problem with the product or a problem with the way it's being used or whether it's some transient situation. There are lots of different things that could be behind all that. A conversational agent has to be able to get to that. 

You use the term "conversational agent," but a lot of people use the term "virtual assistant." Which of those terms should we be using, or are they distinct?

High: They're kind of two different sides of the same coin, in some sense. A conversational agent is more focused on what it takes in order to maintain a conversation. With virtual agents or personal assistants, those terms tend to be more relevant in cases where you're trying to create this sense that the conversational agent you're dealing with has its own personality and is somehow uniquely associated with you.

At least for me, the term virtual assistant sort of metaphorically conjures the idea of your own personal butler -- someone who is there with you all the time, knows you deeply but is dedicated to just you and serving your needs. When a conversational agent is coupled with that kind of personalized knowledge and acts and behaves in a way that gives you the feeling that it's there only for you, I think there becomes an intersection between the two ideas.

For it to serve you on a personal level, any kind of good personal assistant or virtual assistant needs to retain a great deal of context about you but then use that context as a way of interacting with you -- to use the conversational agent technique for not just anticipating your need but responding to your need and getting to know you better to be able to respond to that need better in the future.

In part two of this Q&A, High explains how chatbots and conversational agents each bring their own level of utility to the enterprise.

This was last published in February 2018

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Which conversation-based technology has your company incorporated into business processes and why?
We at Volume.ai implemented Watson conversation for clients as well as Microsoft LUIS. We are playing around with WIT and DialogueFlow but we don't feel they are there yet. It is interresting to see the difference in training strategy of the model between Luis and Watson. 
We use those technologies mainly to automate first touch with client end users and answering the mundane so the human support team spend time on where they really add value