How smart virtual personal assistants can incubate human empathy

Mobile technology giants have been making it happen, with their Virtual Personal Assistants (VPA) that have been strengthening the human-machine relationship.

It has been over a decade since mobile phones moved from being simple voice and SMS devices that allowed us to always stay connected. Now, they have become smarter, bolder and more self-sufficient.

Representational image.

Representational image.

According to comScore, mobiles comprise 69 percent of digital media time spent. As a highly personalized medium, mobile phones have become a critical touch point that customers carry and often engage with.

Enterprises are using this advantage and are largely investing in customer service technology to reach out to them in their platform of choice, and meet customer expectations.

Whether proactive or omnichannel, poor CX is a definitive revenue and loyalty buster for the enterprise. In many cases, it is caused by reduction in service quality that may be attributed to lack of an efficient self-service ecosystem or burgeoning gaps in understanding customer behaviour. This is one of the major reasons why enterprises are adopting Artificial Intelligence-powered technologies such as smart Virtual Assistants to fulfil the rising expectations of customers.

Mobile technology giants like Apple, Google, and Windows have been making it happen, with their Virtual Personal Assistants (VPA) that have been steadily strengthening the human-machine relationship.

Gartner predicts by the year 2020, 20 percent of smartphone interactions will be through a Virtual Personal Assistant. The shift away from mobile applications to speech recognition and natural language processing capabilities is a way of making the interaction real and direct. While they equip themselves with the knowledge of the customer, they also learn to recognize and imbibe behavioural and transactional patterns.

Over time will VPAs ever be ready to recognize tone and sentiment? Are customers really waiting for this digital disruption? Is empathy in Virtual Assistant subjective?

Virtual Personal Assistants (VPA) have been programmed to perform repetitive and defined tasks. They are not limited to sending emails or texts, creating reminders for meetings or looking for information on the internet. These interactive conversations are often monotonal, cold and robotic-like.

During an interaction with a customer through a live agent, there is always a balance of conversation and personalization backed by sentiments and emotions. With the bond between man and machine getting stronger, humans are indebted to the devices they use on a daily basis. As they continue to personify and establish a trust with the technology, they expect to receive the same or equal capacity of emotional engagement through the association.

This stage of emotional connectivity has reached an extent where a human’s comfort level with virtual personal assistants has overpowered that with other mankind. So, wouldn’t it be a smarter option for VPAs to bring in empathy and emotions into the interaction mix?

While designing an algorithm that helps VPAs to feel empathetic is only one half of the battle won, it is also about understanding that the tone of responses varies with different people, analyzing data, interacting with the user on a social angle and making on the spot decisions to personalize the interaction.

How does your VPA know what you’re feeling?

Human beings have a lot of emotional tones with more being discovered each day. Customer expectations have risen to the extent that they require a percentage of emotional involvement in each conversation they have. According to a paper published by Cornell University, 61 percent of humans who tested the machine favoured the emotional versions as compared to a neutral chatbot.

Empathy is all about understanding people’s individual characters and how they feel. It is also learned through personal growth and experiences from instances. The best way to do it is to reimagine speech recognition keeping each individual in mind and not the technology.

It should be able to recognize and understand personalities, moods and tonal pronunciations of words in various dialects of languages based on situations. Moreover, enterprises need to design unique systems that help VPAs pick up subtle changes in the user’s mood throughout the conversation.

Hence, a neutral VPA schedules your day, but an empathetic assistant reschedules your activities if you are caught up.

Empathy - Making the connection deeper and real

To crack the code of emotional intelligence, human touch is crucial. It is an essential part of the relationship between human and machine.

Artificial intelligence is shaping how customers and enterprises use technology and Virtual Personal Assistants are proof of it. Though they try to understand each user’s intelligence based on every interaction, it is important for developers to comprehend that human interactions are entirely constructed on emotional processes more than cognitive abilities. This is where empathy from machines through clever and funny interactions makes a difference and establishes a deeper connection that is relatable.

Enterprises are mixing sensory perceptions, speech analytics and video-based analysis of facial expressions to reach the perfect balance of empathy. But how do you ensure that the empathetic AI is more real than artificial? Research and trial and error on human and AI interactions play a huge advantage in reading human emotions.

From an enterprise perspective, it is necessary to be wary of not going too extreme on the element of humanness in Virtual Personal Assistants. Whereas from a customer perspective, the level of emotional alignment and intelligence that users are drawn to, varies. Therefore, while creating and testing your Virtual Personal Assistant ask yourself this question, will an empathetic VPAs further strengthen the relationship between human and machine?

The author is the Global CEO of Servion and its group companies. 

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