How AI is shaping the hands-free computing experience

Digital growth accelerated over the last few years in Asia Pacific.  There are more than four billion mobile phone subscriptions across the region and more than 1.4 billion Asian consumers now use social media every month, with 95% of them accessing platforms via mobile devices – the highest ratio in the world. 

New technology offers exciting opportunities for businesses, governments, and society; and the rapid growth and speed of change we’re seeing as a result of this digital connectivity is shaping the everyday lives of the people in this region.

For businesses, new technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) will have a significant implication on the future workplace as a means to make computers and mobile devices more hands-free.

The future of hands-free human-machine interfaces is highly dependent on how well these devices can understand human behaviour and respond to it. Engineers are currently designing both computers and mobile devices that enable more meaningful conversations with people through voice. 

Although there is still a long way to go before AI has matured enough to be fluent in understanding every single language, we have seen increasing adoption of the technology to boost workplace productivity and enhance customer experiences across financial services, education and healthcare industries. 

This is further supported by government initiatives such as Singapore’s National Artificial Intelligence Programme, which aims to broaden AI adoption among organisations and pave the way for a hands-free work era.  In fact, a recent report by IDC predicts that more than 40 percent of the digital transformation initiatives in Asia Pacific will be driven by AI by 2020.

For hands-free computing to succeed there are three important levers:

The Rise of Digital Assistants

Digital assistants such as Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant and others reveal a future where the screen could be eliminated as a computing interface, and where individual apps could be replaced by a single point of communication.

Digital assistants are becoming the ‘orchestrators’ of our work, communicating with a wide range of underlying bots, and voice is increasingly becoming the interface of choice. Yet the digital assistants seek to supplement voice with data.  

For example, Cortana mines its work users' emails, calendars and digital workspace.  Soon, with Microsoft Office 365 cloud service, Cortana should gain the ability to search files and find pertinent / trending documents in context to the task the user is working on.

Banking giants, like Citibank and DBS, among the first few firms in the region to leverage AI to enrich their banking services.  Through the use of voice biometrics authentication and virtual assistant chatbots, these players are increasingly automating their service portfolio, leading to enhanced efficiencies and customer satisfaction.

Multi-Threading: The Holy Grail

Devices or programmes that are multi-threaded, or able to remember multiple situations, are the key to improving the value of conversations with digital assistants and / or individual bots. Today, a user must finish a use case before starting another one.  Most people do not always finish an old conversation before beginning a new one.

When a user is enabled to engage in a natural way, i.e. having multiple conversations with a digital assistant / bot at the same time, at different stages, it will help boost widespread adoption.

Engineers are currently applying technologies such as AI to crack the challenge that allows users the flexibility to communicate with digital assistants / bots across multiple scenarios using both voice and text as an interface.  Voice can work in the privacy of a home or car, particularly as more workers start to perform their jobs remotely. In a crowded office, text is likely a better option.

Humanification to bring a natural and meaningful experience

If individuals want to communicate with bots in a more natural and meaningful way, the bots must be "smarter" -- more proactive and intuitive, more human.  They need to learn about the individual with whom they are communicating .  The bot should know the user's preferences and behaviour, improve its skills to proactively reduce the work burden on non-value adding tasks, and ultimately anticipate needs, and make intelligent suggestions and prescriptive solutions.

Without such "learning," the bot cannot engage in a meaningful two-way communication. Although an individual can be very forgiving in the beginning if the bot doesn't always get it right, users expect a bot to improve and learn from their behavior – just like we expect from the real people we work with.

Work is being done to provide users with a seamless ‘human’ experience across all their work systems, but this is a challenging task. Today natural language processing is still a limiting factor, and the skills of bots are basic and often correlated to fixed use cases, such as weather, traffic, trivia and for example inquiries about a company's inventory.

In 2017, users will be looking for bots that are dedicated to achieving more. Whether leveraging it for personalised user experiences or addressing business challenges, Artificial Intelligence will be the ultimate game-changer for businesses in the coming years. 

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