Business / Tech | ADVANCES IN PROGRESS

How can I help? Chatbots offer full customer support with no call waiting

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

Just as text messaging has become a mainstream form of communication, attention is shifting to the chatbot as the next big thing for information management and customer service.

Chatbots are computer programs that interpret human speech or written inquiries and decide which information is being sought.

Although chatbots have been around since the 1960s, they have evolved into tools for giving out details or taking orders, such as when people search for a job or buy a movie ticket.

The chatbot picks up keywords from sentences and matches them with a database to create replies.

Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and big data processing technology, the machines today can analyze and understand a wide range of speech and produce the exact services sought, said Goshi Yonekura, chief technology officer of Tokyo-based AI developer Alt Inc.

He said a chatbot boom is underway, fueled by competition among tech giants.

In April, Facebook Inc. announced it will let software developers use its Messenger app, which has more than 900 million users worldwide, as a platform to run chatbots.

Then in May, Google unveiled Allo, an AI smartphone messaging app that uses a chatbot to call up such data as flight information and restaurant reviews.

Chatbot chatter has been growing in Japan, too, where some companies have adopted them to improve efficiency and to connect more closely with customers.

“Companies cannot communicate directly with tens of thousands of users at once. But with the help of a chatbot they can offer services to customers at any time,” said Naoya Fujita, who heads Tokyo-based chatbot venture BotEgg. “In the past, you may have called customer support and had to wait a long time. That may no longer happen if a chatbot is available.”

Tokyo-based online office supplier Askul Corp. is among companies that have improved their services by using a chatbot to handle customer inquiries.

Askul’s chatbot, Manami-san, has been operating on its e-commerce website Lohaco since September 2014. Manami-san is an anime woman with a bun hairstyle that assists customers in accessing the information they want.

The chatbot analyzes words and phrases inputted by users and returns links with about 60 percent accuracy, said Hideki Nakagawa, Askul’s spokesman.

The chatbot then asks users whether the information provided was what they wanted. If not, a computer engineer uses the feedback to tweak the output at a monthly review.

The chatbot can offer services to customers even late at night when human operators are not working, Nakagawa said, adding that about 40 percent of all inquiries to the company are made between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m.

As of March, Manami-san covered a third of all inquiries made to customer service, which Askul says is equivalent to the labor of 6.5 people.

Manami-san reduced the burden on Askul’s call operators, enabling them to better cater to customers who are really in need of help, Nakagawa said. The company found in a survey that customer satisfaction went up after the chatbot was deployed.

Other companies have deployed chatbots as their official corporate accounts on the popular Line messaging app.

One of these is Panda Ichiro, operated by classified ad firm Recruit Jobs Co. Users talk to the character via the messaging app and it returns listings of part-time jobs. Panda Ichiro had more than 17 million “friends” as of July.

Users tell the panda what type of job they are looking for and give details such as desired salary and location. If they like the look of a job offered, they can then apply for it via Line.

Panda Ichiro can also send users a reminder of when they are next due at work and gives them a weather forecast.

It even gives human-like responses to users’ comments. When asked what he is doing, for example, the panda replies he is on his way home from work and thinking of buying an ice cream.

In April, Line Corp. started a trial allowing software developers to run their own chatbots on the app for free — this was previously a paid service — “to boost the close, real-time communication between users and companies.”

In the near future, the chatbot will “be able to communicate exactly like humans,” Yonekura of Alt said, adding that advanced chatbots today can recognize the context of a conversation and identify what people want to know even if the same thing is expressed in different ways.

“Tests show our chatbot AI engine can recognize natural languages with 97 percent accuracy,” he said. “This means computers can understand people better than human beings, as we often misunderstand what others say.”

Alt plans to release a tool to allow even nonprogrammers to develop a chatbot driven by the company’s AI engine, which is scheduled to come later this month.

Yonekura said the company’s ultimate goal is to build a society where people no longer need to be engaged in simple tasks and can focus more on those that require creativity — the things only humans can perform.

“People often worry that bots will steal jobs from humans,” he said. “I believe that will inevitably happen in the future, but bots will only take over the menial jobs that humans actually don’t need to do.

“A hundred years from now, people may remember our era as a hard one because we had to work to live, just as we now think of the Stone Age as a difficult time when people were focused on survival,” he said. “I believe we are now at the beginning of such a drastic change.”

This monthly feature, appearing on the second Monday, looks at new technologies that are still under development or have just hit the market. It is appearing on Wednesday this week due to the Upper House election.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5