These conversational interfaces will make it much easier, faster and more natural to access functions and data wherever we are — something that digital natives, immersed in Snapchat, Slack and the like, already recognize. That's changing how they interact with brands, says Sri Ramanathan, Group VP of Mobile and AI Bots at Oracle:
We're getting to the point with millennials where, if you don't have a conversational interface, you're going to have an incomplete story if you only have a web interface and a mobile app.
Preparations for this future are already well under way at the enterprise software giant, building on the mobile app platform introduced three years ago as part of the Oracle Cloud platform-as-a-service offering. It was only natural to extend that back-end functionality by adding AI and bot technology, which immediately made all of the mobile platform's syncing, push notifications, links to back-end systems and usage analytics available to the conversational layer.
Oracle bets on conversational
Ramanathan immediately saw the writing on the wall for the cumbersome compartmentalization of separate mobile apps, when consumers can instead use a single messaging client to interact with all their favorite brands:
I was convinced that millennials engaging with eight brands would not download those eight [mobile] apps.
At first, the bots simply add AI-driven capabilities such as natural language understanding, sentiment analysis and image recognition alongside the existing capabilities already available to mobile apps. This allows chatbots to supplant the traditional framework of a mobile app with a back-and-forth conversation. But then over time, the bots can also use AI to learn from your behavior and personalize their response:
It sees you doing this thing at this time and it starts doing it for you. Then it starts poking you for stuff. And then it starts doing things and telling you.
A well-designed bot, he says, is "one that over time you interact with less and less" — while at the same time, behind the scenes, it is progressively doing more and more for you.
Bots adding value
In the context of customer service, that means bots can take over routine enquiries — the 90% of calls to a telecoms company, for example, that comprise one of just three topics: 'What's my bill? Why is my bill so high?' And, 'I'm moving.' By introducing bots that can handle the repeated routines of these three most common enquiries, human agents are freed to focus on higher-value activities.
Unlike a preconfigured menu system, the bot can detect when it can't handle something and hand off to a human operator. Or it can sense that a high-value customer is losing patience, and pass the call to a more emollient human agent. This is not about pretending to be human or replacing them, it's just being more efficient, says Ramanathan:
My stated goal is not to pass the Turing test. We're just trying to be of value.
It's also about being able to build apps faster. An API-driven architecture and a simpler, text-based conversational interface makes it possible to build apps in next to no time. US TV station operator Sinclair Broadcast Group took less than a week to build and deploy a bot-driven app that onboards customers from its BaseCRM sales automation tool into a legacy media industry system of record. Global aviation services company AAR has developed chatbots that make it simple for employees to access information from back-end systems.
These early examples have seen customers build custom bot-driven apps and chatbots on Oracle PaaS, but the technology is also being extended into the Oracle family of SaaS applications, says Ramanathan.
We will bot-enable every SaaS app that we have. On the PaaS side customers will build their own bots.
I'm convinced that conversational computing represents an epochal shift in how we interact with enterprise applications. To find Oracle investing in the technology was therefore one of my BFDs at OpenWorld last October.
My conversation with Ramanathan at the Oracle Cloud analyst summit earlier this month allowed me to drill down on that investment. Oracle is very aware of this trend and can already cite dozens of customers that are investigating what can be achieved with the technology. It's therefore an important extension of the vendor's PaaS and SaaS stack, one that keeps its customers up-to-date with one of today's most important trends in enterprise applications.