Companies today have a customer service problem, and fixing it is more complicated than flashing an eager smile. Consumer-facing businesses are grappling with how best to meet the fickle expectations of real people in an increasingly automated and digital world. At the center of the issue are automated customer service systems, also called "virtual agents." These agents are software programs designed to help customers answer questions, perform basic tasks, or solve problems without talking to an actual person. We've all used them, and in many cases they work great.
Researchers at Microsoft achieved what they say is a breakthrough in speech recognition claiming they've developed a system that's as effective or better than people with professional transcription skills. The software's word error rate (WER) is down to 5.9 percent -- an improvement from the WER of 6.9 the team reported in September. The milestone was enabled with the new Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit, the software that enables those speech recognition advances (as well as image recognition and search relevance). Microsoft announced both developments two weeks ago, though the timing wasn't the best as IBM was holding its huge World of Watson event in Las Vegas. Watson, of course, is Big Blue's AI system made famous several years ago when it appeared on Jeopardy and, in advance of its latest rollout, made the talk-show circuit including CNN and CBS's 60 Minutes, where IBM Chairman, President and CEO Ginni Rometty talked up Watson's own achievements including the ability to discover potential cancer cures deemed not possible by humans, among other milestones.
If you've ever wanted to bottle up and save that holiday feeling - a new AI-produced drink could be just the ticket. "Holiday Spirit" is claimed to be the world's very first data-distilled rum and was created using IBM Watson. The supercomputer analysed data from social media posts in order to produce a bespoke rum "that tastes like a holiday". "In just six hours Watson was able to read 15 million posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter relating to holidays - and find the predominant emotions and concepts in those posts," explained Joe Harrod, big data analyst and AI expert, who works closely with Watson. "The machine then showed that feelings like joy and excitement should be part of a perfect holiday moment.
The future is dystopian: a world in which we humble humans will be replaced by fleets of slick automatons – mechanical menials destined to not only solder, weld and glue us out of jobs, but account, diagnose, and translate us out, too. Or, so goes a certain line of argument. Certainly, there have been some heavyweight concerns voiced about the rise of artificial intelligence. Of course, there are counterarguments too. Just as the Industrial Revolution sparked fears around the supplanting of man by machine (fears which lead some as far as destroying the new mechanical marvels: hence today's use of the word'Luddite' to denote those opposed to technological progress), all new vistas are likely to provoke both optimism and hesitance.