The human face of AI chatbots

Software systems that communicate with ­people via text or speech are becoming increasingly  sophisticated: they recognise the other party’s mood and respond as an avatar with suitable ­gestures and facial expressions.

For British electrical retailer Dixons Carphone, the shopping experience for nine out of ten customers begins online. Two thirds of customers access the virtual retail shop via mobile technology, such as smartphone, in order to check product information and compare prices. All are greeted by Cami, the company’s AI chatbot. Cami is designed to learn from the chats so that it can anticipate the needs of customers, match these needs with current prices and stocks and can thus answer all questions quickly and precisely. The e-commerce retailer is thus recording significant growth in sales and creating scope for its human sales employees, who can now offer valuable customer services in the time they have saved.

Communication is becoming increasingly natural thanks to Artificial Intelligence

Chatbots – or software programs that can communicate with people via text or speech – are now enabling increasingly more natural communication with users: they use Artificial Intelligence, especially natural-language -processing (NLP) technologies, to understand and generate speech. Natural-language understanding interprets what the user is saying and assigns it to a pattern stored in the computer. Natural-language generation creates a natural voice response that can be understood by the user.

If a chatbot is integrated fully automatically, it handles the interaction with the customer by itself. During the conversation, the bot selects the responses it gives to the customer or can decide to forward the dialogue to a human agent if it does not understand the question. A semi-automatic chatbot, in contrast, does not act fully autonomously, rather suggests answers to a human agent. The agent can then select the most suitable response from those offered, revise the response or also take over the dialogue from this point. The advantage of this is that the chatbot can continue to learn from the interaction while already supporting the agent to respond faster and more purposefully. At the same time, there is less of a risk that valuable customer contacts will be lost as a result of errors by the bot. “The evolution of chatbots is only just beginning,” says Wolfgang Reinhardt, CEO of optimise-it, one of the leading providers of live chat and messaging services in Europe. “In the coming months and years, they will become even more intelligent and sophisticated. What is important in this respect is that the bots are incorporated and networked into the communication structure of the company so as to offer the customer the best possible user and service experience.”

AI chatbots in a new guise

The chatbots are to get a new look too for this purpose, too as avatars, they also emulate humans graphically. Cologne-based company Charamel and the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) have already been working for some time in the area of virtual avatars. Charamel’s VuppetMaster avatar platform allows users to integrate interactive avatars into web applications and other platforms without having to install additional software. The aim is to develop a next generation of multimodal voice-response systems that can make more extensive use of facial expressions, gestures and body language on the output side in order to enable a natural conversation flow. Prof. Wolfgang Wahlster, Chairman of the Executive Board of the DFKI: “That will make chatbots credible virtual characters with their own personalities. This new form of digital communication will make customer dialogues and recommendation, advice and tutoring systems in the Internet of Services even more efficient and appealing. These personalised virtual service providers will make it even easier for people to use the world of smart services, turning it into a very personal experience.”


“At the end of the day, as human beings, the most emotionally engaged conversations we have are face-to-face conversations,” reckons Greg Cross, Chief Business -Officer at Soul Machines. “When we communicate face-to-face, we open up an entire series of new non-verbal communications channels.” Many bots are already very good at understanding what someone is saying. It will be more important in future, however, to also be able to evaluate how someone says something. The more than 20 facial expressions a -person uses help in this respect. For example, winking after a sentence indicates that the statement should not be taken too seriously. Recognising this is something that machines or chatbots should now also be able to do. This already works impressively as the life-like avatar from Soul Machines demonstrates. Its computer engine uses neural networks to mimic the human nervous system. When the user starts the system, a camera begins to read and interpret their facial expressions. At the same time, a microphone records the request. The request is interpreted based on the Artificial-Intelligence solution Watson from IBM and a suitable response is given. The Soul Machines engine recognises the emotions in parallel based on the facial expression and voice tone so that it can better understand how someone is interacting with the system.

Because people are interacting with more and more machines in their everyday lives, giving AI a human face is becoming increasingly important for Greg Cross: “We see the human face as being an absolutely critical part of the human-machine interaction in the future.”

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