By Charles Duncombe, owner and director of Holidays Please
As Japan Airlines starts trials of a robot customer service agent at Tokyo airport, is it time to seriously consider the possibility that robots with artificial intelligence will start to take over from their human counterparts in the travel industry?
I don’t know about you but I am old enough to remember the TV programme “Tomorrow’s world”. Every year they would travel to Japan where the presenter would watch the most advanced robot in the world stand up, start a nice controlled bow and then face plant into the floor. And that level of intelligence was supposedly going to be able to walk your dog and take your kids to school.
So for a long time we have had nothing to worry about. However within the next few weeks there may be a leap in the achievement of artificial Intelligence, which could destroy our complacency. This is because next month Google’s artificial intelligence software will go head to head with the “Go” world champion.
“Go” is a board game that unlike chess has an almost unlimited number of moves. It means a computer can’t just run a “brute force” program to calculate millions upon millions of move combinations. Instead in “Go” the computer has to “learn” how to win, just like you and I would.
Experts thought that even the most advanced artificial intelligence would be 10 years away from being able to beat a Grand Master “Go” player. However a few weeks ago …….it happened.
Google’s “Deep Mind” beat the European “Go” champion. It didn’t just beat him, it demolished him by five games to nil. They are now going to take on the world champion next month.
And to show how much of a lead Google’s artificial intelligence has over its rivals, it played “Go” against the other world leading artificial intelligence programs. Google won by 499 games to 1.
So what does that mean for us travel agents?
Do we need to worry that we are going to walk into work one day and R2D2 has tossed your stuff into the bin with a couple of chirpy beeps?
Not in the near future, because no matter how good machines are at crunching linear problems they still struggle with language. They can hear words, they can swallow the dictionary and spit out related words but at the moment they cannot understand meaning and context.
The Loebner Prize has still not been won. This is the competition where computers attempt to trick a human into thinking that they are having an online “chat” with a human rather than a computer. They are not even close to fooling us yet.But computers don’t need to learn language to upset the status quo.
Now that Google’s artificial intelligence machine has found the ability to “learn” it can analyse vast quantities of data, spot trends, test theories and get better and better.
Combine this with voice recognition and the current explosion of “big data” in company databases and it becomes very powerful.
For example you could track the actions of your customers from where they surf on your website, when they contact you, what questions they ask you, the words they use and even their tone of voice.
The computer could take this information and see how you deal with those customers, the words you use, how you speak and the results that follow. Then the computer could learn what the most successful approach is for each type of customer.
Our subconscious does this all the time (you will often respond in a more positive way to customers who are giving “buying signals”) but an artificial intelligence powered computer could supercharge your senses and instantly offer better information and suggestions.
We have all been surprised by the customer who was never going to book but then does, likewise we have always had sales “in the bag” that disappear.
Artificial intelligence could help you pick up on the signals that you are currently missing. It could then offer suggestions to help win the previously unwinnable sale.
So while R2D2 might not be tossing your stuff in the bin for a while, his cousin working for a competitor could be stealing your customers with some dastardly and intelligent mind games!