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AI: The next frontier of CRM
Source: searchCRM
Date: 05 Sep 2001
Author: searchCRM
Kevin Dowd, president of Brainhat Inc.
Artificial intelligence isn't just for Haley Joel Osment. In the future, automated agents might answer customer phone calls and carry on conversations, much like human agents. Unlike Osment's film persona in Steven Spielberg's "A.I.," these agents will only be programmed to talk, not to love. Kevin Dowd, president of East Hartford, Conn.-based Brainhat, a company that creates natural-language interfaces, discussed AI in an interview with searchCRM Assistant News Editor Christine M. Campbell. Dowd said artificial intelligence can automate kiosks, switchboards and help desks, although he recommended an enterprise not base its entire future on it.

searchCRM: Can you explain a little bit about artificial intelligence software?
Dowd: Ideally, what you want to do is get some natural language ... and parse it into a data structure, which is essentially like a diagrammed sentence. When you get it in that shape, then you can manipulate it. You can turn a statement into a question, you can compare something that you learn with something you may have learned before and you can generate inferences. If you do this with enough different sentence structures and with enough different inferences, suddenly you have software that appears to be intelligent and able to hold a dialogue with you.
searchCRM: What are some of its uses?
Dowd: If it can hold a dialogue with you over some limited domain, like repairing something or ordering tickets, then it can serve as a more natural front end for things that people do. It's not going to be the same as hanging over the back fence with your neighbor or talking to the barber. You can do quite a bit with limited domains, where you tell the software what it is that the conversation is going to be about, and you give it some goals, and in a nonprocedural way it will find its way toward the answers that you are looking for, like what's your name. That would be a CRM sort of application.
searchCRM: Can you elaborate on the CRM applications?
Dowd: The idea is that the software can be a clearinghouse for language-based events. That means that English can come in and English can go out. Other things can happen as a side effect of things learned or things deduced. That could be that a request is made, or a piece of mail is sent. One of the voice interfaces (is) VoiceXML.
searchCRM: What is VoiceXML?
Dowd: It's Web markup for speech. There are a lot of people pinning companies' futures on it. I'm not. I think it's amusing, but I don't know if it's the end-all be-all.

The idea is that you can craft speech pages, and you can essentially have telephony go through a server, which will do the speech recognition generation part. On the back end, you can have someone's Web server serving up these pages. You can replace the more traditional ways for cobbling together CRM applications for speech using some XML markup, which is more standardized.

searchCRM: How did that lead to Brainhat?
Dowd: We said, "Here's this way to do speech markup using your text editor. Why not generate those markup pages dynamically so that you can have a dialogue?" We made the product into a VoiceXML server. The idea would be that you could have speech markup pages for ordering a ticket. If you ended up in some trouble, you could have a more general conversation with something that knows what it is you want to talk about. That would be Brainhat.
searchCRM: How does Brainhat integrate with an existing CRM system?
Dowd: CRM systems using VoiceXML are very much like Web servers, where you can do a "get." The next link need not take you to the same server. You can go somewhere else. It's really not something that even has to be crowbared in.
searchCRM: Where do you see the technology heading?
Dowd: Artificial intelligence disciplines in general, as soon as they become mainstream, they're no longer artificial intelligence. Some of those are becoming mainstream, like natural-language processing, (which is) very much an artificial intelligence discipline, but people just put it as another feature on a feature set.

With CRM applications, particularly the ones that are doing speech or even type-text interfaces, you will see natural language processing as a feature. In many cases, what passes for natural language processing is really "word spotting" -- looking for cogent stuff in a stream of text.


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