IBM readies SA artificial intelligence debut

IBM. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)
IBM. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

Cape Town - Cognitive computing service ‘Watson’ from technology giant IBM is expected to be switched on in South Africa early next year, says a company official.

IBM’s Watson technology can understand natural language, answer questions, learn and generate hypotheses.

The artificial intelligence technology tool shot to fame after beating top human competitors in US quiz show Jeopardy in 2011.

And last month, Metropolitan Health announced it is using IBM’s ‘Watson Engagement Advisor’ cloud service: making SA only the sixth country in the world to have this tech.

Metropolitan Health is equipping its contact centre agents and walk-in staff with Watson to respond better to customer queries. Agents, for example, can ask questions of Watson and get answers about three seconds later after the cloud service scans Metropolitan Health’s unstructured data.

"We are in the process now of implementing IBM Watson for them and they're looking to take it live sometime in the late first to second quarter of this coming year," Vince Kasten, financial services executive partner for IBM Global Business Services, Middle East and Africa, told Fin24.

Metropolitan Health CEO, Dylan Garnett, told Fin24 that IBM Watson is planned to be used at first in the company’s customer services environments, which handles more than 12 million client interactions each year.

“The computer will be configured and trained to coach agents, assisting them with their enquiries,” said Garnett.

Watson as a virtual coach

Kasten further explained to Fin24 that Watson as a ‘virtual coach’ could benefit contact centres in an industry where staff retention is challenging.

According to a 2013 CareerCall Salary Survey, staff attrition in SA call centres is between 18% and 25% per annum and is driven by factors such as remuneration.

"There's a really good chance that the person you're sitting in front of or talking to on the phone has relatively little experience," Kasten said.

"What this (Watson) allows you to experience is a much more experience call centre agent on the other side of the phone," he added.

Growing technology influence

But IBM’s Watson is not the only automated technology solution on offer to contact centres, as the likes of Dimension Data also target this space.

"There is a whole big play that the machines are really taking the human factor out of play in any service sector, whether it be call centre or business process outsourcing (BPO), any kind of service environment,” Traci Freeman, the Johannesburg representative of BPeSA (Business Process enabling South Africa), told Fin24.

Yet Freeman said the human factor cannot be made redundant when it comes to handling tasks such as policy and procurement management.

Other experts such as Lise Hagen, the IDC's Research Manager for Software and IT Services Africa, agrees.

“Call centers are ideal breeding grounds for technology and automation, because it is a process-driven environment. However, technology and automation should actually make the human interaction more important,” Hagen told Fin24.

“As the South African market becomes more competitive, customers are more connected than ever, and products and services become commoditised, organisations realise that experience becomes the real competitive differentiator,” Hagen said.

According to BPeSA data, South Africa has 200 000 contact centre seats.

* Follow @GarethvanZyl  on Twitter. For more tech news, follow Fin24tech @Fin24_Tech.

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