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No one wants to be Clippy – Impressions from Convercon 2017

By 9th May 2017 No Comments

IMG_9493The phrase was spoken by a panel member and the audience nodded sagely. We’ve come a long way from Microsoft’s attempt to animate a paper clip and imbue it with supposed intelligence. Attending Convercon, Ireland’s first conference on conversational interfaces, it was clear that those gathered in the room now had the power of voice recognition and deep artificial intelligence to hand.

Held in Trinity College’s inspiring Science Gallery, Convercon billed itself as bringing together the world’s leading conversational interfaces platform players and technology enablers. The intimate setting led to some interesting panel combinations where conversational experts from Google, Facebook and Microsoft discussed some of the current challenges.


With 20% of Google searches in 2016 being triggered by voice according to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, it’s time has come as a viable interaction method.

But strange circumstance pop up when voice is the sole means of control as witnessed by work on Google’s voice assistant. Adrian Zumbrunnen, a Google User Experience engineer noted that voice memory is far shorter than visual memory so voice interfaces have to repeat options often. A person’s recall on something as simple as a list of restaurants can be limited to two or three options.

It also triggers strong emotions. Zumbrunnen noted that people have an incredibly low tolerance for using voices interface.

“They hate repeating themselves and always blame the system upon a failure to process a command. Interestingly, people using a graphic user interface will normally blame themselves if a command fails to process.”

Not all attendees were unnerved by these ever listening devices. Julien Decot, Facebook’s Director of Product Partnerships uses Amazon’s Alexa, the voice driven speaker assistant. He considers it a polite guest in the house showing that the environment in which we use voice can have a strong effect.

Discoverability of the options available in conversational interfaces is a bugbear still to be solved. Alexa has a wide range of “skills” that it can perform but unless you know the phrase to use for these skills, they remain untriggered.

Gender plays a surprisingly large role where, rightly or wrongly, existing gender biases mean a voice interface will either be male or female depending on the type of information that is dispensed.

It’s good to talk.

Alongside voice, the rise of automated chatbots was discussed in depth. These are the services, sometimes driven by artificial intelligence, that allow you to conduct a conversation with them.The CX (Customer Experience) experts described how a lot of the drive for chatbots has been led by hard nosed cost reduction, especially around the area of call centre staffing costs.Airlines in particular saw the process of booking via chatbot as being attractive to their bottom line.

The chatbots themselves are embedded across a wide range of platforms with Facebook Messenger appearing as the most accessible to both brands and consumers.

The fact that developing a chatbot is relatively simple means that all types of services have popped up on Messenger. The world’s most popular chatbot on Messenger is a Muslim call to prayer chatbot developed and maintained by an Egyptian schoolkid. The consensus seemed to be that chatbots that readily identified themselves as being chatbots were more likely to be engaged with.

A surprising local entrant into the chatbot space is VHI Healthcare who showcased their new health focussed Messenger chatbot at the conference. Expect more details in the coming weeks as Irish brands explore what are the possibilities and learnings of interacting with their consumers through artificial intelligence.

Technology is being woven into more and more objects and the challenges now are to move people beyond a screen into a more natural and useful interaction.

Companies such as TSSG were there to showcase innovations in the world of AR/VR with their VR glove. They have covered the glove with IMU’s (inertial measurement unit) which help to measure the  tiny changes in direction and angle of each digit. This is already helping surgeons to train for delicate operations. With the addition of machine learning, the glove can also recognize patterns in someone playing a musical instrument and suggest subtle changes.

It’s clear that this area can only become more important as the tech giants pour their considerable resources into voice and artificial intelligence as the UI of the next decade

Written and published by Cian Walsh Irish Tech News