Conversational AI is one of the most interesting applications of artificial intelligence in recent years. While the trend isn’t yet ubiquitous in the way that recommendation systems are (perhaps unsurprising), it has been successfully productized by a number of tech giants, in the form of Google Home and Amazon Echo (which is ‘powered by’ Alexa).
The conversational AI arms race
Arguably, 2018 has seen a bit of an arms race in conversational AI. As well as Google and Amazon, the likes of IBM, Microsoft, and Apple have wanted a piece of the action. Here are some of the new conversational AI tools and products these companies introduced this year:
Google worked towards enhancing its conversational interface development platform, Dialogflow. In July, at the Google Cloud Next event, it announced several improvements and new capabilities to Dialogflow including Text to Speech via DeepMind’s WaveNet and Dialogflow Phone Gateway for telephony integration. It also launched a new product called Contact Center AI that comes with Dialogflow Enterprise Edition and additional capabilities to assist live agents and perform analytics.
Google Assistant became better in having a back-and-forth conversation with the help of Continued Conversation, which was unveiled at the Google I/O conference. The assistant became multilingual in August, which means users can speak to it in more than one language at a time, without having to adjust their language settings. Users can enable this multilingual functionality by selecting two of the supported languages. Following the footsteps of Amazon, Google also launched its own smart display named Google Home Hub at the ‘Made by Google’ event held in October.
Microsoft’s in 2018 introduced and improved various bot-building tools for developers. In May, at the Build conference, Microsoft announced major updates in their conversational AI tools: Azure Bot Service, Microsoft Cognitive Services Language Understanding, and QnAMaker. To enable intelligent bots to learn from example interactions and handle common small talk, it launched new experimental projects from named Conversation Learner and Personality Chat. At Microsoft Ignite, Bot Framework SDK V4.0 was made generally available. Later in November, Microsoft announced the general availability of the Bot Framework Emulator V4 and Web Chat control.
In May, to drive more research and development in its conversational AI products, Microsoft acquired Semantic Machines and established conversational AI center of excellence in Berkeley. In November, the organization’s acquisition of Austin-based bot startup XOXCO was a clear indication that it wants to get serious about using artificial intelligence for conversational bots. Producing guidelines on developing ‘responsible’ conversational AI further confirmed Microsoft wants to play a big part in the future evolution of the area.
Amazon with the aims to improve Alexa’s capabilities released Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) which consists of APIs, tools, documentation, and code samples using which developers can build new skills for Alexa. In September, it announced a preview of a new design language named Alexa Presentation Language (APL). With APL, developers can build visual skills that include graphics, images, slideshows, and video, and to customize them for different device types.
Amazon’s smart speaker Echo Dot saw amazing success with becoming the best seller in smart speaker category on Amazon. At its 2018 hardware event in Seattle, Amazon announced the launch of redesigned Echo Dot and a new addition to Alexa-powered A/V device called Echo Plus.
As well as the continuing success of Alexa and the Amazon Echo, Amazon’s decision to launch the Alexa Fellowship at a number of leading academic institutions also highlights that for the biggest companies conversational AI is as much about research and exploration as it is products. Like Microsoft, it appears that Amazon is well aware that conversational AI is an area only in its infancy, still in development – as much as great products, it requires clear thinking and cutting-edge insight to ensure that it develops in a way that is both safe and impactful.
This huge array of products is a result of advances in deep learning researches. Now conversational AI is not just limited to small tasks like setting an alarm or searching the best restaurant. We can have a back and forth conversation with the conversational agent. But, needless to say, it still needs more work. Conversational agents are yet to meet user expectations related to sensing and responding with emotion. In the coming years, we will see these systems understand and do a good job at generating natural language. They will be able to have reasonably natural conversations with humans in certain domains, grounded in context. Also, the continuous development in IoT will provide AI systems with more context.