“The Age of Intent” — a big idea book about Artificial Intelligence

Two years ago, I got the opportunity to start work on a book about artificial intelligence. Today, you get to see the result.

AI is one of the most powerful forces driving technology right now. Conversational interfaces — whether that’s online chat or Alexa — are another. Artificially intelligent chatbots, also known as virtual agents, are at the intersection of those two trends.

So when I got the chance to work with P.V. Kannan, CEO of [24]7.ai, on a book about how virtual agents will change the landscape of interactions between companies and customers, I grabbed it. The result was The Age of Intent: Using Artificial Intelligence to Deliver a Superior Customer Experience. The publisher is Amplify. And the book is available for purchase right now.

Why this is a powerful idea

The challenge in a book like this is to boil the trends and details down into a clear and accessible concept. P.V. and his colleagues at [24]7.ai, including my main contact and supporter there, Ian Bain, explain it this way:

If you’re old enough, you remember how the advent of the Web transformed the way people interacted with companies. The Web was transformative because it did two things at the same time: it made those interactions cheaper for companies, and it made them better for customers. In business, advances that are cheaper are also usually crappier. But in the case of the Web, people loved getting things for themselves online, any time of day and night, and it was less expensive to run than a bank of people answering phones. That’s why the Web took off.

That type of interaction had a good run and mobile devices and apps extended it for another decade or so starting around 2009. Virtual agents — AI-powered chatbots — will usher in the next big advance, and for the same reason: they are both cheaper for companies and, at least potentially, a better experience for customers.

The main paradigm of the Web was this:

Find me what I am seeking, and then I will act on that knowledge.

The paradigm of the virtual agent is simpler, and therefor more powerful:

Get me what I want.

That “what I want” part is the intent. When the virtual agent can puzzle out the intent of the customer from listening on reading text on a chat, the agent can go get the customer what they want. The science of determining the customer’s intent is getting better and better, especially for customer service, where there are a finite number of things you could conceivably want from a company.

When you can just ask a company to get you what you want and it can bring that back for you and talk to you about it, that’s powerful. When it can happen any time of day or night, on any device, that’s going to transform people’s interactions with companies. And that’s why I was excited to work on this book.

On the verge of something big

When Charlene Li and researched and wrote about social media in Groundswell, there was a sort-of tingle in the back of my neck. As I wrote about the case studies in that book, it was clear these were the harbingers of something powerful changing. There is no more exciting moment for an author than framing a change like this — showing it to the reader and explaining what it means. It’s as if you are a guide on a tour of a new continent.

I felt the same tingle when working on The Age of Intent. We had to work very hard to find examples of companies that put these technologies into practice and benefited — because virtual agents are pretty new. Some of those companies used the [24]7.ai virtual agent, called AIVA, and some had created their own or used competing systems, but all of them had learned how AI could not just save them money but improve the experience of their customers.

For example, in this book we describe how Avis Budget used virtual agents to automate 68% of service calls, how Nordea Bank in Denmark handled 20,000 conversations a month and reduced emails and calls by 25%, how Dish Network responded to 4 million queries a year with a virtual agent called DiVA, and how Butterball ported its Turkey Talk-Line to Alexa and served 20,000 customers at the Thanksgiving rush.

Virtual agents are tricky. They need connections to corporate customer systems, which often aren’t that easy to hook up. They need a corpus of text or voice interactions to train on. They’re much better at service than sales, at least for now. And they work better on properties that companies own, like web sites and apps, than on big platforms like Facebook Messenger and Amazon smart speakers.

But I have no doubt that these challenges will be resolved and that AI-driven conversational interfaces will make a huge difference in how companies and customers interact in the future. And when it comes to customer service on companies’ apps, Web sites, and phone lines, they’re already making dramatic differences.

We were lucky enough to get P.V.’s friend Thomas L. Friedman to write some very complimentary things about the book in the New York Times. I am hoping this is the beginning of a lot of buzz about The Age of Intent and virtual agents.

This is P.V.’s book. I won’t be speaking about it or promoting it (beyond this post). But I am hoping you’ll take a look at it, because this shift is a big deal — and I think we did a good job of explaining it.

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  1. Implementations of artificial intelligence tend to look like they are closer to fruition than they really are. I think this is because they inherently lack flexibility and the nuances of human language. I hope that your optimism is well justified but regardless, this is a very timely topic.

  2. I’ve been here as well, Josh:
    We had to work very hard to find examples of companies that put these technologies into practice and benefited — because virtual agents are pretty new.
    I have found that pioneering case studies is both time-consuming but handsomely rewarding. Writing Too Big to Ignore, I struggled in 2012 to find companies doing interesting things with Big Data and willing to speak with me about it. Like you, I moved from theory to practice and am pleased with the result.

  3. I have never met a customer service AI that I liked. I suspect that’s because they are designed by neurotypical people, using neurotypical speech patterns, and for typically neurotypical needs.

    Neurodiverse people, particularly those whose neurologies affect their speech and language, are always going to struggle with the rigidity of bots that lack the imagination necessary to understand our unique language patterns.

    Often I run into bots that feel like brick walls of inaccessibility because they can’t understand what I want because I can’t word it the way they were programmed to expect (think your recent AT&T experience, but without ever accomplishing the intended goal). When there isn’t an option to communicate with a human, I’m left out in the cold. Increasingly this is true of even essential services like those provided by government agencies. Increasingly they mean I can’t participate in society.

    So it’s nice to be excited about new technology, but too often, and with AI in particular, we are so busy focusing on the new and shiny that we forget to consider all the people who will be excluded from life with its adoption. Maybe you’re a utilitarian and don’t mind sacrificing a few for the benefit of the many, but I always believed the right to life and happiness applied to all. AI seeks to take that right away.