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BusinessDay: Embrace AI to speak to your customers

By Johan Steyn, 3 August 2021

Voice computing opens opportunities in the way we interact with and serve customers in real time

It was perhaps the one Zoom call that left me more emotional and inspired than any virtual conversation I had before. The man on my screen has been deaf since early childhood and he spoke with a beautiful humility and profound articulation. I could barely understand what he was saying and he could not hear me. So how did we communicate? Our intermediary was a smart technology called natural language understanding.

In August 2020 I conducted an interview for my YouTube channel with Dimitri Kanevsky. Before joining Google, he was a research staff member in the speech algorithm department at IBM. He is the creator of Live Transcribe, an app with the potential to give people who are deaf or hard of hearing greater independence.

More than any day before I realised how smart technology can be used to make life better. The fields of education and health care are already showing great potential when infused with artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms.

Our ability to speak and to communicate with each other is what makes us human. Speaking to another person, gaining understanding, agreement and friendship are at the core of our lives. Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, writes: “Afraid of being alone, we rely on other people to give us a sense of ourselves, and our capacity for empathy and relationship suffers. We see the costs of the flight from conversation everywhere: conversation is the cornerstone for democracy, and in business it is good for the bottom line. In the private sphere, it builds empathy, friendship, love, learning and productivity.”

Clifford Nass in Wired for Speech: How Voice Activates and Advances the Human-Computer Relationship, writes: “Even before birth, a foetus in the womb can distinguish its mother’s voice from all other voices. Within a few days after birth, a newborn prefers his or her mother’s voice over that of a stranger’s and can distinguish one unfamiliar voice from another. By eight months, infants can tune in to a particular voice even when another voice is speaking.”

Speaking, listening, understanding and responding with meaning makes us human. It is also what makes the new wave of technology smart. In the days of mainframe computers, IBM was the ruling firm; the desktop era was dominated by Microsoft. In the internet age Google reigned supreme. Facebook and Apple proliferated with mobile computing. We have now entered the era of voice computing.

What happens when our computers become as articulate, compassionate and creative as we are? “The advent of voice computing is a watershed moment in human history because using words is the defining trait of our species.” So writes James Vlahos in Talk to Me: How Voice Computing Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Think. “Voice is becoming the universal remote to reality, a means to control any and every piece of technology. Voice allows us to command an army of digital helpers — administrative assistants, concierges, housekeepers, butlers, advisers, babysitters, librarians and entertainers.”

Voice computing offers many benefits to businesses. It opens new opportunities in the way we interact with and serve our customers in real time. We are able to harvest valuable behavioural data from client interactions, enabling us to predict and reduce churn.

• Steyn is a smart automation and artificial intelligence thought leader and management consultant. He is the chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA (IITPSA). He writes in his personal capacity.


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