The State of Conversational AI in the Times of COVID-19

Even though AI is still in its early stages of development, it can already offer many benefits to businesses. And conversational AI is surely one of them.

In recent years, the need for implementing chatbots either for customer or sales support has grown tremendously, contributing to the growth of the entire conversational AI market, which is expected to be worth more than $250 million by 2027.

As more businesses have started to implement conversational AI, consumers have also been getting friendlier towards chatbots in the past couple of years.

According to the statistics report by Smallbizgenius, around 67% of customers used chatbots in 2018, and by the end of 2019, this number has risen to more than a quarter of the entire population. Even though some customers still claimed they preferred communicating with a live person than chatbots, the majority started learning how to appreciate their benefits.

But what is the state of conversational AI now?

Indeed, the current pandemic has introduced some changes to every industry, and conversational AI is not an exception. And the only way we can predict where this industry will be after the pandemic is over is only by analyzing how it is changing right now.

So, is conversational AI prospering in the times of COVID-19, or is the industry going through an AI winter which will only end after we’re done with this virus?

Let’s take a look.

1. Replacing Humans in Call Centers

There has hardly been any country in the world that hasn’t experienced the effects of the coronavirus. The rapid changes brought by the pandemic forced many people to start working from home, to which many of the companies worldwide were not prepared.

Customer support representatives were also among those who had to leave their workplace and work from home or even resign from their jobs. Because of these changes, companies had to start searching for something to replace humans to keep customer support running. As a result, many of them turned to conversational AI and decided to build chatbots to remain in line and stop losing customers.

Because of such growing interest in using AI to replace human labor, many leaders in the AI industry started calling it a sign that artificial intelligence will soon take over every industry.

For instance, a report by MIT Technology Review has indicated that companies, as well as governmental institutions, will keep investing more in conversational AI during the pandemic because it helps reduce the burden on the call centers and the wait time for customers.

The publisher came to such a conclusion after the governor of New York ordered a 50% reduction of government staff and replaced them with a cheaper technology-based solution.

As a result, companies that provide conversational AI options to businesses has seen a rapid increase in demand. IBM, for example, saw an increase in traffic to its Watson Assistant, cloud-based software that builds and deploys virtual assistants, by 40% from February to April 2020.

Will these changes be permanent?

It’s hard to tell since so many people still prefer communicating with a human customer service representative instead of a chatbot. However, consumers will most likely get used to chatbots for want of a better since they will probably be the only option to get customer support in the nearest future.

2. Supporting Unemployed Citizens

With the current pandemic came another problem — growing unemployment rates. Governments around the world issued relief funds to help those who lost their job because of the pandemic but quickly found it hard to process all the inquiries they were receiving in a day. That’s where conversational AI came to the rescue.

One of the applications of AI was brought to life by the Texas Workforce Commission that introduced a chatbot named Larry, which can help Americans file for unemployment, check their unemployment eligibility, get information on careers and other details without having to talk to a live person:

This chatbot is a kind of conversational FAQ that can answer the most popular questions, thus, taking a huge load of work off the shoulders of government workers. The chatbot will ask a user a series of questions and then direct them to the necessary landing page where they can apply for the help they need.

There is a huge benefit from such an application of AI both for governmental institutions and their visitors. Apart from supporting government health policies, chatbots can ease the process of applying for financial relief, decrease the amount of paperwork, thus helping get rid of bureaucracy. But most importantly, they still make interactions between governments and citizens possible, but most importantly, safe.

3. Assisting First Responders and Medical Workers

Surely, one of the most important applications of conversational AI during the times of COVID-19 is in helping medical workers fight with it more efficacy.

Chatbots assist with detecting coronavirus hotspots as well as providing essential information on the symptoms of coronavirus. One such chatbot was introduced by CDC. A chatbot named Clara provides step-by-step instructions for people who suspect they have coronavirus:

Such chatbots can be of great help, especially when the number of cases is growing rapidly and hospitals are overwhelmed. Dennis Blake, a conversational marketing expert and writer at EssaySupply, says that hospitals are looking more into introducing chatbots as well to help them manage incoming inquiries about the availability of beds and answer questions regarding symptoms.

Another example of a chatbot similar to the one from the CDC is the one by WHO. This chatbot operates through WhatsApp and provides the current coronavirus-related news and tips on how you can protect yourself from the disease:

Users can also get answers to the most popular questions, including those surrounding the vaccine, as well as current treatment and testing standards. As a result, such chatbots help prevent misinformation and make people more educated about the virus and how to tackle it.

However, one of the more creative applications of conversational AI in healthcare so far is a chatbot named Robin introduced by the UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital. This is a robot that is the height of a 4-year-old child that travels around the hospital building and makes children not feel as lonely while being isolated. Children can converse with the chatbot, watch videos, and play short games.

UCLA Hospital’s chatbot using associative memory — it recognizes emotions by interpreting their facial expressions and uses this information to build dialogues. Right now, the hospital uses this chatbot just to test the response from the patients. If it is positive, more and more hospitals will start using this technology to support their patients.

So, Where is Conversational AI Now?

From all the applications described above, it’s obvious that conversational AI continues growing despite the disruptions brought by the pandemic.

As more and more businesses are relying on conversational AI to provide customer support, governmental institutions also incorporate chatbots to help them tackle the consequences of the pandemic and provide people with the aid they require. But, most importantly, conversational AI found its best application in helping provide coronavirus relief and assisting frontline workers.

This is what the current state of conversational AI looks like now, as we are getting deeper into the pandemic. And, since things seem to stay this way for the foreseeable future, conversational AI will keep being a big part of our lives, helping us tackle the COVID-19 virus.

Author Bio:

Aurosikha Priyadarshini is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at Kore.ai, writing mainly about Chatbots, Conversational AI, and more. When I am not in writing mode, you will likely find me reading books, watching animated movies, or on my balcony taking care of my plants.

Interested to hear more on Conversational AI from experts in the field? We are hosting 10 speakers from Google, Amazon Alexa & more next week. See more here.

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