COVID-19 has placed massive stress on communities and economies around the globe. Virtually every industry — whether healthcare, banks, hotels, or retailers — are exploring ways to communicate with customers while their physical locations are closed to the public. Call centers are swamped, as anxious consumers look for answers about the virus or attempt to change travel plans. This situation is causing long wait times and dropped connections — preventing callers from getting help when they need it most. At the same time, call centers are short-staffed as agents call in sick or attempt to transition to remote work.
Businesses are now facing two crises: unpredictable spikes in demand for service and the need to prepare for a potential economic recession.
Conversational artificial intelligence (AI), aka virtual assistants or AI-powered chatbots, that allows information access through text- or voice-based interaction, is proving its worth during the coronavirus crisis. Advances in natural language processing (NLP) have enabled conversational AI technologies and widened their reach, leading to tools such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Home that are part of many consumers' everyday lives.
Conversational AI uses information discovery, NLP, and other technologies to communicate with human beings, helping them execute tasks, answer questions, and find information more quickly and effectively. Traditionally, NLP has used ontologies and taxonomies with a lot of human linguistic assistance to process dialog and unstructured text properly. However, with the advent of deep learning algorithms and models such as BERT, IDC is seeing a resurgence of statistical-based NLP that can handle very specific domains, such as diseases like the coronavirus.
The advent of deep learning–based NLP has improved the ability to understand and handle a wide range of languages and domains and has facilitated the creation of a wave of conversational AI applications by many existing and new vendors. The market for chatbots and conversational AI software literally exploded last year, with numerous companies offering various tools and technologies. IDC compiled a list of outstanding solutions powered by conversational AI that support businesses across various industries during the coronavirus pandemic, such as:
- Aisera, a Palo Alto–based AI solutions company, is providing its 24 x 7 AI- powered virtual assistant free for 60 days to help healthcare organizations, agencies, and businesses provide customer service during the global pandemic. The Aisera Virtual Assistant aims to help hospitals and government agencies deliver COVID-19-related responses to the high volume of questions, concerns, and inquiries caused by this pandemic.
- Artificial Solutions, a specialist in enterprise-strength conversational AI, introduced Tiva, a business-focused artificially intelligent virtual assistant that allows public and private sector organizations to remain productive and rapidly deploy automated HR and IT support to employees currently working remotely.
- AWS is enabling an Alexa-powered chatbot that healthcare organizations can embed their clinical protocols into and help triage individuals calling in about COVID-19. These protocols often include frameworks on assessing the likelihood for an individual to have a condition and paths to escalate for further attention. The clinical triage protocols are wrapped with core components of the chatbot utilizing Amazon Lex, a service for building conversational interfaces into any application using voice and text, to understand user requests and provide the information. The chatbot could be deployed together alongside Amazon Connect, an easy- to-use omni-channel cloud contact center that provides users with seamless, consistent experiences across voice and chat, or the chatbot can be integrated within your own web or mobile environment. By utilizing an AWS-powered chatbot, healthcare organizations can educate, engage, and empower their communities to take ownership of their health. These chatbots also benefit patients by allowing them to triage themselves in the comfort and safety of their own home via a short call with their healthcare provider.
- Google Cloud is helping organizations respond to their customers' questions related to COVID-19 and their business with Contact Center AI that can provide a first line of response through 24 x 7 conversational self-service support via chat or over the phone. As speed is of essence, it has launched the Rapid Response Virtual Agent program. It has also made it easier to add COVID-19 content to an organization's virtual agent with the ability to integrate open source templates from organizations that have already launched similar initiatives. For example, Verily, in partnership with Google Cloud, has launched the Pathfinder virtual agent template for health systems and hospitals. It enables organizations to create chat or voice bots that answer questions about COVID-19 symptoms and provide the latest guidance from public health authorities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO). Designed to help government agencies, healthcare and public health organizations, non-profits, and businesses in other industries impacted by COVID-19, such as travel, financial services, and retail.
- IBM is offering a Watson-based virtual agent dubbed "Watson Assistant for Citizens" to help governments and organizations deal with an overwhelming number of calls from constituents on COVID-19 questions. The digital assistant offering brings together Watson Assistant, natural language processing capabilities from IBM Research, and state-of-art enterprise AI search capabilities from IBM Watson Discovery, to accurately understand and respond to common questions about COVID-19 digitally or via phone (voice). Clients can also work with IBM to customize the solution to tailor services for citizen's specific needs.
- Inference Solutions, a global provider of intelligent virtual agents (IVAs), launched an FAQ on-demand offering, which includes a free team of IVAs that can be rapidly deployed to keep customers and employees informed as the COVID-19 crisis evolves. For a limited time, service providers, businesses, healthcare organizations, and government agencies can license five voice-based virtual agents that have the skills to answer frequently asked questions using speech recognition, text to speech, and natural language understanding. An organization can create a spreadsheet of FAQs that address common inquiries, including service, operational, or policy changes; help desk applications; or community health and safety updates. This spreadsheet can be uploaded to Inference's code-free IVA development platform, Inference Studio. Then the Inference professional services team will configure the FAQ application, set up Google Dialogflow agents, program natural language intents, and deploy the service. The application can be easily updated as new information or services become available.
- IPsoft, an independent enterprise AI solution provider announced the launch of a Digital Employee to help screen for potential indicators of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus, with the aim of helping authorities to "flatten the curve" of confirmed infections. Amelia, IPsoft's conversational digital assistant for COVID-19, is equipped to identify potential risk indicators and educate the public about the pandemic. This interactive solution screens for COVID-19 symptoms and provides U.S. citizens important information on the virus. This version of Amelia also aims to alleviate pressure on hospitals, clinics, physicians' offices, and medical care centers that are fielding non-urgent questions related to COVID-19. As a cognitive agent capable of interacting naturally with humans, Amelia can relieve health institutions so that they are able to focus their efforts on populations with the greatest need.
- Microsoft is offering its Healthcare Bot service powered by Microsoft Azure to organizations on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response to help screen patients for potential infection and care.
- Oracle's work-at-home requirements associated with the spread of COVID-19 have made it all the more important to give employees easy access to ever-changing information — on company policies, insurance coverage, and public health guidance, in addition to the usual cadence of questions on vacation balances, status of expenses, and IT workarounds. AI- based chatbots or digital assistants stand to change the way we interact with business applications, not just consumer ones. The main benefit is the ability to get immediate responses to queries via natural local language, without having to download apps or get training. Oracle Digital Assistant is helping in a couple of ways: as an assistant for every employee, answering general policy questions, supporting employee health and safety, enabling and expanding HR outreach via self-service, delivering consistent information, and maintaining employee engagement.
- ServiceNow's latest release, the Now Platform Orlando release, provides a new set of powerful AI and analytics capabilities, including conversational AI capabilities for an organization's help desk or for IT support and automation. The new release helps people get work done smarter and faster by automatically surfacing context-aware recommendations, predictions, and insights to help teams act on the fly. It also includes virtual agent capabilities that can answer questions and guide user to the right answers for their problems.
- Uniphore, a conversational AI platform vendor has been providing conversational AI solutions and capabilities to several organizations whose call centers have been completely overwhelmed by the crisis due to social distancing of call center agents and, in some cases, the complete shutdown of the centralized call center with agents having to work from home. Uniphore has developed and deployed conversational AI agents and solutions that augment and improve call center agent capabilities and, in many cases, are able to handle the call in a complete and automatic way.
Due to the current crisis, many government, healthcare, and insurance organizations are now turning to conversational AI applications to manage the upswell of customer calls, emails, and messages about COVID-19 for some good reasons: chatbots are available 24 x 7, offer strong potential for curated information that can be customized to the needs and symptoms of the individual; responses to specific questions can be provided in an interactive manner more rapidly than traditional online search methods, and the information is easily adaptable to local guidelines and regulations, based on the location of the user. Besides all the benefits, there are certainly some deficiencies that must be addressed as well: organizations need to ensure data security and privacy at the forefront of usage and adoption guidelines to maintain public's trust in the information the chatbots provide.
According to IDC, conversational AI interfaces based on voice and messaging are not the wave of the future, rather the requirement of today given this dynamic and changing period in history. “A decade from now, talking and conversing with your applications and devices will seem like an everyday norm. The seeds of that conversational revolution are now germinating. How will your organization and enterprise participate in this new world of customer and knowledge worker expectation around conversational interfaces? Organizations should be evaluating and potentially adopting conversational AI applications to solve the significant customer service challenges that the current situation has created for many of them”, the research firm concludes. (Source: IDC)