AI is starting to drive survival of the fastest

Chetan Dube, founder and CEO of IPSoft believes businesses will live or die by AI adoption

"We are living in a digital Darwinist era," says Chetan Dube, founder and CEO of IPSoft, speaking at the company's Amelia City Lab on State Street, New York. With a view of the Statue of Liberty over his left shoulder and the iconic Staten Island ferry chugging over his right, Dube talked about the company's latest iteration of Amelia, a digital agent he has dubbed ‘the most human AI'.

While the blonde white avatar is hardly representative of today's diversity requirements (that's perhaps a little unfair as Amelia is completely customisable), it is nevertheless pioneering the embryonic market of cognitive agents. It's important to make a distinction. Amelia is much more than a chat agent. In fact, the term chatbot seems a little demeaning, especially when you get to see the depth of intelligence that Amelia can bring to call conversations.

Chatbots typically manage calls through a structured, scripted framework called a decision tree. Amelia, with the considerable help of Professor Christopher Manning, a leading machine learning, computer science and linguistics expert at Stanford University, is managing complex, contextual conversations, information requests and user verifications. More fluid, less woody.

"There is a blurring of the lines between human cognitive capabilities and what machine cognitive capabilities are and we are really starting to answer that ever-allusive Turing question - can machines think?" says Dube. He references stories from MetLife and Electronic Arts where customers who had dealt with Amelia on previous calls actually asked to speak with her again, as she was "the one that was really helpful". In Amelia he clearly sees the potential. While it may not be singularity, it is nevertheless a step forward in how a machine can not just supplement existing customer service departments, it can transform them.

Dube refers to a large banking customer that currently has a call volume of 1.2 billion a year, just for credit card related queries. For mere mortals, it's undoubtedly a huge headache, but for Amelia, well, it's her raison d'etre. The point is, as we have heard it so many times before, AI has the capacity to go where humans cannot.

So, is Amelia going to take jobs? In short, of course she is but as Dube argues, the sort of mundane, "robotic jobs" she excels at will, in theory at least, free workers to focus on other tasks. Inevitably though this will be a moveable feast. Some businesses will see it as an opportunity to scale down, others to grow. Dube believes it is the latter but whatever the tactic he is sure of one thing - if businesses don't start thinking in AI terms, they will struggle.

Don't be a Dodo

"It is the survival of the fastest, to adapt," he says, and he is right. As digital disruption threatens industries such as financial services, banks and insurance firms are having to respond or, to keep the Darwin theme going, face extinction. What is surprising it that the notoriously risk-averse banks have become pioneers in deploying Amelia. Arguably banks have not been the quickest to react to disruption but according to Dube at least, they are making up for lost time.

"I'm surprised how fast moving they are," he says, but adds that banks and insurance companies also track risk, so they should be ahead of the curve. IPSoft has packaged Amelia into 1Bank, a dedicated AI banking agent to drive home the point. It's a buoyant market for Dube. Insurance and telecommunications also underpin the company's current customer list but it's far from set in stone. Healthcare and retail are clearly evolving. After being invited to speak to MPs in London at the House of Commons, he believes Government also presents considerable opportunities but he sees AI accelerating change, not just in the businesses themselves but in how they view new markets.

"The digital under currency, fostered by AI," he says "is breaking down the old silos and allowing some unique business models to emerge." He refers to the recent healthcare deal between JP Morgan, Berkshire Hathaway and Amazon, and also Elon Musk's plans for car insurance. It's also going to be fundamental to the future shape of the auto industry and even energy.

The point is that Dube talks an intellectual game but practically he is already making it work and seemingly lining up a list of businesses that will be ripe for Amelia, perhaps in one of its other packaged forms such as 1Desk, a concierge version and 1RPA where Amelia meets robotic process automation. Clearly this has gone beyond market creation. As a Gartner survey revealed in January, 37 percent of organisations have already implemented AI in some form.

As the business readies for its IPO this year - Dube wouldn't be drawn on a date but confirms it will happen - this has to be positive news for Dube, although he sees it as only the start.

"The way services are delivered is shifting," he says. "In the last decade the shift was from people to cheaper people as businesses went offshore for BPO, ITO and so on. That fundamental platform for how services are rendered is now shifting from human people to digital people and AI is at the heart of that."

He's probably right but he raises another, perhaps more unnerving point.

"It's only a matter of time before this is going to be a physical form. I think it will happen by 2025. Robotic movements are getting more fluid and internally, we are creating a silicon-based form that is indistinguishable from carbon-based forms."

He's referring to Amelia of course, and for some reason (perhaps it's the bow tie and naturally engaging demeanour) coming from Chetan Dube, it doesn't seem such a bad thing.