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Conversational AI Gets a Huge COVID Boost

As humans shun personal interactions and opt for zero-touch services, economies are shifting to a contact-less, remote-everything ecosystem. This has led to an explosive growth in the Conversational Artificial Intelligence (AI) market that is expected to grow from US$4.8 billion in 2020 to US$13.9 billion by 2025, at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 21.9%, according to research firm markets and markets. This includes platforms, services, IVA (interactive voice assistants) and chatbots. Machine and Deep Learning, Natural Language processing are some of the underlying technologies driving this market. The technologies are being deployed over Cloud and Edge (on-premise). This has also created a demand for new skills to train chatbots, virtual assistants and developing digital avatars.

The major factors driving the growth of the conversational AI market are the demand for AI-powered customer support services, omnichannel deployment, and reduced chatbot development cost. Furthermore, the rising customer engagement through social media platforms and increasing integration of advanced AI capabilities are major factors adding value to the conversational AI offerings, which is expected to provide opportunities for enterprises operating in various verticals in the conversational AI market.

COVID-19 has placed massive stress on communities and economies around the globe. Healthcare providers and government agencies are overwhelmed by the amount of urgent inquiries and concerns caused by this pandemic. However, healthcare isn’t the only sector that is being challenged during these tough times. Across the globe, companies in virtually every industry — whether banks, hotels, or retailers — are exploring ways to communicate with customers while their physical locations are closed to the public.

Call centres are swamped, as anxious consumers look for answers to health queries, service support, or attempt to change travel plans, for example. This situation is causing long wait times and dropped connections — preventing callers from getting help when they need it most. To add to the woe, most call centres 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, as per an IDC analysis.

The IDC survey reports that conversational artificial intelligence (more popularly known as virtual assistants or AI-powered chatbots), which allows information access through text- or voice-based interaction, is proving its worth during the coronavirus crisis. “We are at the beginning phases of conversational AI revolution. 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,” it states.

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.

While healthcare is an obvious vertical primed for conversational AI in these COVID-times, restaurants are also adapting to this technology quite rapidly. As foot traffic decline, some are hitting record digital orders via the web or mobile app. Their model supports drive-through windows, mobile pickup lines, curb-side pickup, and/or delivery. It introduces a set of new challenges: long wait times, overworked staff, supply challenges, escalated volume of customer complaints, and potential loss of sales if guests run into friction when ordering online or via the app. By putting conversational AI to work, restaurants can make staff workloads manageable and cut down on customer waiting time.

For financial institutions, interest in conversational AI has been growing for several years, spurred in part by the success of Bank of America’s virtual assistant Erica and Capital One’s Eno, but the coronavirus pandemic may result in a more rapid ramp-up of the technology.

The majority of the incoming customer queries for the largest retail banks targeted to be handled by a chatbot are common crisis questions such as: “Are your branches still open?” However, in today’s crisis environment, the questions are getting more complex, such as “Can I get coronavirus from cash or from an ATM touchscreen?,” “What cleaning regimen do you have in your branches?,” or “Can I put my EMI payment on hold?” Training chatbots to handle those type of questions would take time. A few institutions are working on this to prevent customers from facing long wait times to speak with an agent.

Conversational AI software, especially now, hold tremendous opportunities for industries such as government, insurance, healthcare, and consumer goods/retail. The goal is to have automated agents providing customer service, advice, sales assistance, and a myriad of other tasks and capabilities that are exclusively achieved through human interaction today.

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