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Does not compute: Why AI, chatbots and virtual assistants will kill websites

Come up with a name. Print some business cards. Get a website. Three things almost all businesses do when they’re starting out. But Peter Dingle says the rise of AI, the increasing sophistication of chatbots and virtual assistants, and changing expectations around customer service mean building that fancy new website is probably a waste of money.

Most people can’t remember where they were in 1991. And even fewer people can remember their exact location on August 6th, 1991. If you read a newspaper, or watched the news on TV, you wouldn’t have noticed any major global events. But something momentous did happen. That was the day the first website was launched.

Websites have enhanced the way we read our news, to the way we buy our things, to the way we learn and the way we interact with our friends. In fact, they are so popular, there are over one billion websites on the web today. If somebody had told you in 1990s that more that 100,000 websites would be created every day for the next 25 years, you would probably have laughed them out of the room. And you probably won’t believe me when I say that artificial intelligence and the concept of the chatbot will replace the dominance of websites in the next ten years. But that’s my prediction. 

MORE OR LESS

It has taken 25 years for half of the world’s seven billion people to gain access to the internet. And this has been achieved first in rich countries through the PC, desktop or laptop and, more recently, through mobile phones and tablets.

Existing websites need to work on mobile phones. And the cost of making every website dynamically suit mobile devices today would neither be a good use of time or resources. It’s also not a practical way of enabling citizens of the world’s 196 countries or over 6,000 languages to access the information they are looking for.

In many emerging markets, the devices of preference are cheap 2G and 3G mobile phones with long battery life. These are not designed to deliver visual images, large pieces of detailed documentation or complicated forms. And in developed countries, we have become impatient and demanding. We expect instant gratification when we search for something online, and we want transparency to compare to consume. 

The frustration of visiting a deeply structured, multi-page website that does not have the same search capabilities as Google creates a negative experience. And the process of using a 'do-it-yourself tool' to calculate an answer to a question is becoming increasingly unacceptable.

Enter Clare, the retail banking advisor who you can text, WhatsApp, WeChat, Snapchat or Line. She can ask you the relevant questions to help you prompt your thinking and to gain a clear understanding of what you really want. She can share available services, update your profile for credit scoring and administration purposes and remind you when new offers are available.

Clare is a customer service chatbot that many banks are already testing. She uses natural language speech recognition to understand local dialects, but she learns as more customers engage in the same way a call centre gets smarter the longer it works with a company, or Google gets smarter with each search. 

Clare is a large database of answers in many languages who communicates through the channels that you prefer, 24 hours a day, seven days a week including public holidays and weekends. ‘She’ gives you the answers to the simplest, most embarrassingly basic questions, like where the closest ATM is, through to more complex advice related to savings goals.

Locally, Air New Zealand launched its chatbot Bravo Oscar Tango late last year in an effort to “offer a more personalised experience than searching a traditional Frequently Asked Questions section online” and  New Zealand company Soul Machines is aiming to improve the customer experience by giving chatbots and virtual assistants “frighteningly realistic” facial expressions that can also respond to yours. 

NOW WE’RE TALKING 

With all this technology, there is still no substitute for face to face meetings. But the complexity of organising them can be overwhelming for many.

The basics, such as getting the meeting into the calendar, setting up logistics such as time and place, ensuring everyone is informed and managing any changes aligned to preferences is critical.

Enter Evie, my calendar assistant and natural language response that uses some great reference tools from Stanford University and Google. She does all the organising and communicating and, on average, I estimate she saves me around ten hours a week. 

In the past there was no way for our paper diaries or wall calendars to talk to each other. Today, due to cloud connectivity and synchronised calendars across our devices, they can, and with a little AI and some boundaries in place, we can put the same trust in an AI assistant that has previously been placed in human assistants. 

At home, Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Apple HomePod are also harnessing the power of natural language processing, and the increasing proficiency of the systems that provide the answers shows that you might not need to use a screen and fingers in the future. And when these technologies are finally capable of knowing who we are, where we are, what we are doing and what we want right now, we will truly unlock the power of personal assistants in our work and home lives. 

ORGANIC, DYNAMIC AND LIVE

Since July 2008 when the Apple App Store was announced, developers have created and launched nearly 2.5 million applications for iPhones.

Many of the first versions have been updated to include new features and deal with growing screen sizes to take advantage of the extra computing power of new iPhones. But mobile applications are basically static, native packaged versions of websites. They certainly offer advanced capabilities and a much better user experience than the mobile website in general, but they do not dynamically adjust or change in response to us as the user. They cannot have a personality that adjusts to our mood, or even automatically detect our preferred means of communication.

User experience has been the number one area of focus and differentiation for service businesses and product companies globally for the last ten years. The creativity and satisfaction that has been delivered through mobile devices and new applications has changed the expectations of consumers and raised the bar significantly. This has put pressure on traditional businesses that aren’t digital specialists to gain those capabilities to refresh the ways they engage with customers.

We have all experienced forms that we fill in at the doctor’s surgery or the unbearable levels of paperwork required at the bank. Our public institutions seem to be stuck in the dark ages, especially when you can almost instantly sign up for Uber with a photo or a credit card or use a Gmail login to open a new profile and register for an online service. 

Static webpages, mobile applications and old forms or processes are ways of the past, and systems that learn dynamically, that respond to the subtle requests of our potential customers and existing valuable clients are the way forward.

We have already seen the creation of super apps in China. WeChat has become a multi-functioning platform that users never need to leave. You can literally search, find, buy, pay, sell, share, review, invest, bank and work all without leaving a single app on your phone.

We have already seen the creation of super apps in China. WeChat has become a multi-functioning platform that users never need to leave. You can literally search, find, buy, pay, sell, share, review, invest, bank and work all without leaving a single app on your phone. This is breaking down the traditional model of utility type applications or websites that have a single function or value. These new super apps will know more about us than  ever before. They will not only know who our friends are, but will also be able to predict what is best for us, whether it’s deciding on which local restaurant you should go to, or, perhaps, who you should go there with.  

MARCHING ON

Like all new technologies, early iterations of chatbots and virtual assistants have had plenty of teething problems. But things are improving quickly and they will eventually deliver faster, more accurate answers to our questions and requirements. They will organise our days and weeks, they  will update our shopping lists, and, perhaps most importantly, they will ensure we remember to organise a present for Mum's birthday.

My prediction: you will learn  to love the chatbot the way your grandparents have learned to love Facebook. And just as mobile phones have replaced landlines  in our kitchens, broadband has replaced dial-up in our studies, and streaming services have started to replace terrestrial TV in the lounge, your powerful new friend the chatbot will soon replace your website. So think twice before investing in that digital space. 

Peter Dingle has more than 15 years of experience in building multi-billion dollar corporates in Asia. He was the creator and global director of Nest Innovation Accelerators, which managed eight accelerators and 75 startups with US$50 million raised. He is now focused on scaling his knowledge and experience across more sectors and is working directly with companies in artificial intelligence, computer vision and scalable education solutions.