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The Machine That Can Empathise



Will artificial intelligence diminish the importance of human relationships?

2 min read

The world has become a little obsessed with artificial intelligence (AI), yet many people still don’t understand it.

So it’s a good idea to think about Chef Roberto. The ‘legendary pizza maker’ lives inside the popular language-learning app Duolingo. Every day millions of people test their language skills by chatting with the chef. But he’s not real. His answers are generated by software.

Roberto solved a major problem for Duolingo. It wanted users to chat, so the obvious solution was to pair, say, a German-learning Italian with an Italian-learning German. But it didn’t work. People were embarrassed. The gap in ability was too great. Chatting with bots (internet robots) was completely different. Gina Gotthilf, Vice President of Growth at Duolingo, says: “Talking to a bot isn’t awkward. It provides a way to practice conversation privately, without the fear of sounding unintelligent.”

Bots like Roberto are everywhere now. Facebook gave brands the ability to create bots for Facebook Messenger in 2015, and now there are over 10,000 on the platform. Their rise is not surprising. Bots give users a more natural way to get information. Typing ‘what time is my flight?’ is easier than browsing a web page or app for the answer. 

Brands, meanwhile, use bots to handle queries faster and more cheaply. Take Lemonade, an insurance start-up. In January 2017, its agent bot Jim set a world record for paying a claim. Jim took three seconds to cross-reference it with the policy, run anti-fraud algorithms and send wiring instructions to the bank. What’s more, Jim can handle thousands of claims at the same time.

“Such technology has the ability to service clients quicker and more reliably than ever before, but the intelligence is only as good as the knowledge it is taught.”
Robert Hemphill, Head of Innovation, Coutts

Although not explicitly ‘Artificial Intelligence’, machine learning is already transforming business processes and services. “Machine learning has the capability to process any number of potential outcomes and calculate the most viable decision in a matter of seconds, quicker and more reliably than any human counterpart” explains Robert Hemphill, Head of Innovation, Coutts. Such technology has the ability to service clients quicker and more reliably than ever before, but the intelligence is only as good as the knowledge it is taught.

Financial services companies are pioneers of AI for obvious reasons. Customers love the convenience of digital services. But many crave human interaction too. Bots – though not entirely human - deliver on both. Last year, Mastercard unveiled Facebook Messenger bots for its issuer banks. Obviously users can ask these virtual helpers for basic information such as account balances. But the conversational interface lets them go much deeper.

Kiki Del Valle, Senior Vice President of Commerce for Every Device at Mastercard, says: “A customer could ask the bot how much she had spent in restaurants in the last three months. She could then set a cap on spending and set an alert for when she nears the limit. It’s very easy to do this in a natural language chat session.”

Of course, bots are just the consumer face of AI. Inside the enterprise, businesses use the tech to analyse huge data sets and draw conclusions about customer behaviour. Banks use AI to spot unusual spending patterns that could indicate fraud. Meanwhile in a test by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, IBM’s Watson AI ‘brain’ analysed 1,000 cancer diagnoses. In 99 per cent of the cases, it recommended the same treatment as oncologists. 

But some observers have raised alarms at robotic decision-making. It’s one thing for AI to speed up reconciliation and reporting inside a bank, for example. But lending decisions? This is contentious. After all, AI can be biased and many consumers simply prefer the warmth of a human relationship.

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Key Takeaways

Artificial intelligence is increasingly being used to liaise with customers and the financial services sector is a pioneer with this technology. But machines are still a long way from being able to replicate the warmth of a human relationship that customers value.

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