Stellar at SXSW: The Rise of the Machines

To keep us at the cutting-edge of customer experience world best practice, some of the Stellar team went to SXSW in Austin, Texas. In this series of blogs I’ll be exploring what we learnt at SXSW, and what it means for our clients. 

Dive in to the rest of the series here:


Talk of Artificial Intelligence (AI) – including Deep Learning, Automation & Robotics – was everywhere at SXSW. AI is considered one of the main technologies that would shape the next 30 years through “augmenting” humans via robotics, speech and service applications.

The confronting and the cute

By far the most unsettling demonstration of Robotics and AI was from Hiroshi Ishiguro, Professor at Osaka University and world leader in interactive robotics and android science. He has developed ‘Humanoid Robots’ aimed at replicating human emotion, conversation and even appearance.

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Using AI, natural language speech recognition and deep learning, his ‘Geminoid’ robots are tele-operated android versions of existing people (including himself) that can have natural conversations.  He talked about being able to send the Android version of himself to press conferences across the world to reduce his travel schedule, with the only problem being getting the removed head through airport baggage control.

The session was amazing, but quite unsettling to work out who was an actual person and who was a robot. A far cuter – and less confronting – robot we met was named ‘Pepper’.

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Pepper is the most advanced “emotional robot” in the world, built on speech recognition and deep learning technology. Pepper is intended "to make people happy", enhance people's lives, facilitate relationships, have fun and connect people with the outside world.  Possibilities for Pepper include being used as a companion robot to be used in aged care and hospital environments, as well as in retail/hospitality situations.  He can pick up on human emotions and have in-depth conversations – even making jokes based on context. The amazing part is that he will soon be available for around $2k each. Not just a toy for the rich — it’s top of my Christmas wishlist.

Autobot or Decepticon?

At the IBM Cognitive Studio, there were the usual discussions on whether AI will support or destroy humanity.

Putting Skynet aside, one of the main themes was AI and trust. If robots perform more of our daily tasks, including creative ones, we’ll need to watch the amount of trust we place in their algorithms – and how those algorithms will affect brand trust. Google spoke about the challenge of self-driving cars and the “trolley problem” – in an unavoidable collision, how might our car decide who to injure or even kill?

"Can I speak to the human manager?"

As well as ethical dilemmas that will need to be specifically programmed for a pre-determined outcome, the future of work as we know it could be deeply altered. Working side by side with machines is not a distant dream, and how people interact with AI and robotics could be a key decider in any job application.

From a customer service perspective, AI will have major implications. Using AI has the potential to completely transform the contact centre space — through combining AI with human expertise and emotion. By leveraging the strengths and advantages of both worlds, the pairing of humans and AI will create massive improvements to customer service and to the workplace.

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With assistance from AI, human support staff will be able to focus their time building relationships and solving tough-to-navigate problems — instead of doing repetitive, monotonous tasks. As a result, companies will have more resources to focus on growth, instead of getting bogged down with admin. Companies will simultaneously optimise their costs and revenues.

From a customer perspective, being able to self-serve and automate more and more transactions will create a frictionless journey with brands, and will cut down on waiting time. AI can be used to predict customer behaviour to solve problems before the customer is even aware of them, but with the ability to engage with a fellow human for more complex support when needed.

Gartner predicts “by 2020, customers will manage 85% of their relationship with the enterprise without interacting with a human”. From the technology we saw, we aren’t far away from customers not being able to tell the difference between speaking to a machine or human. Machines will be able to detect a customer’s tone and then engage with them in a way that will make them feel listened to and important. The machines will learn from previous interactions and from watching their human co-workers resolve issues. With emotional intelligence, machines can show empathy at the right time in a conversation to offer a genuine customer experience.

The future of AI

We heard futurists talking about Artificial Intelligence (AI) as something you would purchase like an ADSL connection — with central AI systems constantly learning, and companies able to tap into this ever improving resource. In the future we’ll be able to use huge quantities of data to solve some of the world’s most difficult problems.

Some people are fearful that AI will render their careers obsolete and remove them from the workforce. Jobs will change, as they often do with the emergence of disruptive technology, but probably for the better. AI will remove more and more of the monotonous tasks we’d rather not do, and free up time for more personal, high-value, creative and innovative interactions.

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This will mean disruption for the contact centre industry, but core to all themes we saw is the basic need for a human touch throughout all this technology. Technology is an enabler and the current advances we witnessed will mean changes to the way we do business, but won’t stop people being at the core of everything we do.


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