What Social Distancing Means For the Future of AI-powered Conversational Apps
Virtual assistants and the ever-changing new normal.
This is a reprint of the LinkedIn publication by Gleb Oblomskiy, Chief Product Owner at Just AI.
Declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, the new coronavirus, COVID-19, is having a devastating effect on economics: global markets are crashing and nearly every industry is being affected by the outbreak. With millions of people reduced to staying at home, the world we all used to is falling apart. We looked into how the way we work, study, purchase things and entertain ourselves is changing and what AI-powered Conversational apps have to do with it.
Despite the efforts to hold the spread of the new virus and contain the pandemic with social distancing measures, everything is slowing down: major events are being canceled, popular venues are closing up, people are staying in lockdown. On March 16, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had the largest single-day drop in history, falling by nearly 3,000 points.
While all industries have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, some suffer from the economic decline much more than others. The travel industry is poised to receive a major blow: stocks of three major cruise companies — Royal Caribbean, Carnival Corp., and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings — plunged over 50%. Hotel workers are prepared for job losses. As a result of a decline, the global airline industry might face $113 billion in lost revenue. All kinds of offline entertainment — from movie theatres to live sports to conventions — are set for a downturn. Both retail and restaurant industries will be forced to make major cuts to survive. Apparently, smaller companies will be hit harder than large ones — they have limited access to credit and less cash in the bank. As of now, no one can predict the actual damage to the global economy. One thing is for sure — companies will need to adapt to the changing reality in order to stay afloat.
Adapting to Change
Some businesses are going to win somehow from this outbreak: we’re not talking about firms that sell deep-cleaning products, and popular hand sanitizer brands. Remote work has been gaining momentum: tips for setting up remote teams have been dominating the headlines. A week ago, video-chat services from Zoom, Google, and Microsoft were among the App Store’s top downloads. Also, Microsoft’s workplace app Teams grew from 32 million to 44 million everyday users. Education service providers — from schools to workshops to universities are moving to online only. Traditionally offline businesses are going virtual, including conferences, movie premieres, music shows, and theatre performances. Last week, Universal Pictures announced that the animated feature “Trolls World Tour” will be available for streaming.
Amazon announced 100,000 new hires to keep up with the rush of online orders. To help employees handle the growing demand, Walmart and 7-Eleven are hiring 150,000 and 20,000 positions respectively. Besides grocery stores are increasingly investing in drone deliveries, robotic warehouses, and micro-fulfillment technology, and to keep up with the increased demand for home deliveries. With so much of people’s lives making a transition to online, major part customer experience is taking place in a virtual premise. Meaning, we are set for a golden era of intelligent virtual agents.
Age of Intelligent Virtual Agents
Demand for virtual customer communication is sure to result in a higher load on contact centers, making further automation a necessity. Even when the crisis is over, traditional face-to-face encounters like going to an accountant’s office or a business meeting — could someday seem less necessary as get used to remote options. In the wake of the situation, we expect more industries to rely on conversational agents.
Of all the industries, contact centers have the most experience in effectively deploying intelligent virtual assistants in their ecosystem. However, with so many things changing in how businesses operate, contact centers are experiencing a rush of customers looking to resolve their issues. Thus, one of our clients — a paint supplies producer that had a bot consultant in place long before the corona crisis — had a surge in queries, because many people thought that quarantine was a good time for a home makeover. As for smaller businesses going for in-flight digital transformation, they will definitely benefit from OOB solutions they can deploy fast. For example, with a ready-to-use template, anyone can create a smart bot that will call a customer to confirm delivery or inform about new services and policies — this feature is coming soon to our visual chatbot builder Aimylogic.
Telemedicine is already experiencing a major boost in adopting conversational AI, with many tech companies offering conversational solutions to fight the new coronavirus. Just AI, for example, released an intelligent virtual assistant for government institutions that can share information and answer questions about the coronavirus. Voicify is working with state governments to build a coronavirus -focused voice apps. Microsoft offers a chatbot to help healthcare providers triage patients. Quite naturally, the pandemic is catalyzing the demand for remote mental health tools like apps and chatbots, while text-a-therapist platforms report an influx of users looking for help. In the US, Medicare is expanding coverage for providers with telehealth-based services, including mental health counseling. Some of those services are going to stick and, after the pandemic is over, healthcare companies spin-off new business units.
As online education is gaining momentum, service providers will keep on getting an influx who’ll need someone to take care of their issues. That’s where conversational agents come into play: bots will address customer queries and make the study process more interactive. Also, finishing an online course requires motivation, so virtual assistants will help users commit to their goals and better track their progress. Great examples of that are bot-driven language learning apps and a conversational AI-powered app Eddy that helps users learn product management. However, this trend may go beyond traditional education services: workout streams will definitely benefit from virtual assistance, enabling users to ask questions, share their results, and get the necessary feedback in real-time.
Family and child entertainment
With so many people locked at home, the industry of family- and kid- entertainment is going to experience a major transformation. And as most parents are working from home and children are being homeschooled, people would try to limit their screen time. So, chances are, smart speakers will turn into a center of home entertainment for families. Entertainment content providers are sure to jump in on the trend and start offering more voice-first or mixed-media options. Voice-assisted board games, podcasts and microcasts, interactive voice quests, immersive voice drama, and voice-only exclusives for postponed movie premiers — all that will see a growing demand in the nearest future.
Ubiquity of Voice Interfaces
Recent studies have discovered, that if COVID-19 resembles other human coronaviruses, it can remain on surfaces like metal, glass, or plastic for up to nine days. Sure, at temperatures higher than 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) some of those viruses die. They can also be effectively cleaned up by household disinfectants. But, there are places where you do not have an option other than touching interfaces that are publicly used. So, we can expect more public venues opting for voice interfaces, including elevators, parking stalls, public restrooms, kiosks for metro/bus/train tickets, and open office spaces.
With all that said, people are sure to start interacting with bots more often in the nearest future. Apart from more contact centers adopting digital conversational agents and businesses adding bots to their customer communication channels, the overall bot usage is going to increase. As a result, people are going to feel more comfortable around bots. And since the mass adoption of emerging technologies is a two-way street, the more people use bots the smarter they become. This also applies to voice-only content for digital assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant, the more people use them, the more high-quality content is going to be created.
So, we’re definitely on the cusp of a new world on so many levels, where, if used right, conversational apps can live up to their potential.