Once a week we’re hearing about a new breakthrough in artificial intelligence technology. An AI has beaten the human champion in Go, has taught itself to walk, has created its own language in order to communicate with itself. The examples multiply and grow, and the capacity and potential of artificial intelligence grows with it. It seems to point to the fact that we are on the cusp of introducing truly intelligent technology into our daily lives.
But does it really? Do we care that an artificial intelligence system is able to master a board game, or teach itself to get through an obstacle course, or converse with itself? Why does it matter that artificial intelligence can succeed within the relatively niche set of parameters we are setting for it? When is all of this going to matter?
The answer is that it already matters, and artificial intelligence is already making an impact. It’s just not penetrating the mainstream media the way other AI programs are. Google and Facebook have huge followings, so when their AI is making breakthroughs its front-page news. However, there are plenty of companies that have created actionable AI that can be integrated into business processes that aren’t as well covered. So let’s cover one.
Choosing an Artificial Intelligence Solution
In early December of 2017, IPSoft held a dinner at Lucca Back Bay in Boston, Mass. Attending were several members of the company, a couple dozen attendees of AI World 2017, and the managing editor of TechDecisions, yours truly. IPSoft, a digital automation company that created its AI platform Amelia, wanted us to find out how artificial intelligence can and will be used in everyday business. In order to demonstrate, they invited Scot Whigham, Director of Global IT Service and Support for InterContinental Hotels Group, to speak about how he is using Amelia and its artificial intelligence in his everyday business.
“I have a global footprint around the world supporting nearly 6,000 hotels with over 100,000 staff including 30,000 corporate staff,” says Whigham. “For our solution, what we were looking at was porting all of these hotels in the technology stack that goes in with running a hotel. It is an organic growth, a mess of different contact points with over 350 different applications that we support. Big challenge.”
When Whigham joined IHG in July of 2015 he was given the challenge of straightening out and delivering high-quality IT services that handle the capacity coming in. The challenge was that he had to do so within the physical and financial constraints present in any organization. Basically, he was given the task to expand without expanding.
“That became starting to think about automation and virtual assistants,” says Whigham. “I had been monitoring that market for quite some time to see what the solutions are. We looked at several vendors. IPSoft fell into my lap in particular – we had been using the IPSoft product but that was in a different silo and I wasn’t very familiar with that.
“I did find Amelia,” says Whigham. “We started investigating this technology and thought it might make sense.”
The conversational aspect was a key piece of the system. Another key piece was Amelia’s ability to integrate into IHG’s existing case management tool. There was no single point of contact within the tool, and Whigham wanted one.
“That single point of contact had to be able to support our 350 different applications,” says Whigham. “No human being within our organization has been able to demonstrate the ability to have that knowledge of 350 applications, so this became a technology solution.”
Training AI and Learning
Whigham and his department of six made the decision to integrate Amelia, made the investment, and started on the path to incorporate AI into its business. They started with integration into the company’s case management tool. It took three days to do the integration.
“That was very fast, and very impressive to us,” says Whigham. “Within three days of bringing Amelia into the environment she was already able to open up cases for us. That was significant.”
So much time in each open case was spent getting basic information, identifying the speaker, and validating that it was them. With Amelia’s integration, the person is identified, the case is open, and the basic IT triage work can begin immediately.
Next, Whigham started with Amelia’s training process. “One of the things we realized was that we had bought into the idea of AI as a magic box,” says Whigham. “It’s not an all things solution. It becomes a suite of tools you need to integrate together.
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“We connected her with tools and started to embed her into applications – we just released our new booking tool after fifty years. Our previous booking tool was developed in 1962 using the same mainframe architecture,” says Whigham. “We also took that extra step to embed Amelia within the platform so that she is page aware, she can detect when errors come up, and she is starting to sort that information. The best part, for us, is that now she’s becoming that help tool right there in the application so that our people won’t have to leave that application when they’re having conversation with guests at the front desk.”
As Whigham and his team experimented with Amelia, they started to learn lessons. They walked in and tried to control everything that was going into the AI. They wanted to program the training exactly. This led to unusual conversations, and helped IHG comprehend the power and promise of AI – a learning capability. Take in conversational transactions, map out those transactions, and provide a framework by which the company can identify, build out, and perfect tasks.
They also learned a lesson about company culture. “Cultural change has to take place within an organization as this technology comes onboard,” says Whigham. “This is shifting the business industry. It’s the fourth industrial revolution taking place.”
Justifying Artificial Intelligence in Cents and Dollars
First, the culture change needed to be communicated to business leaders. IHG is not a risk-taking company. It is a very traditional company. Whigham and his team had to come in with a business case and convince leadership why this was the right direction. They knew the capabilities were there, but they needed to make a financial case. So they analyzed the cost of different tasks with and without the capabilities of Amelia. And they analyzed who was doing these tasks.
“We had all these different people doing different tasks, and started asking if the right people were doing the right tasks,” says Whigham. “We found out that our tier-three engineers were doing password resets – that’s about $75 per password reset. Are there other tasks – repeat, routine tasks – that they’re doing? We can assume that it’s about $75 per task to execute.
“If you have an L2 entry-level engineer execute, the cost drops significantly. If you look at a service desk, especially if you’ve outsourced, your cost is going to drop even more. When you look at what you’re doing on a per-cost basis for Amelia to do these tasks, and you’re looking at thousands of tasks per month, you’re looking at pennies on the dollar.
“That’s the deal-sealer right there, every single time. What does it cost you to execute these routine tasks day-in and day-out? You look at that business justification and there’s no turning back. That’s the cultural change,” says Whigham.
The other side of cultural change comes from the bottom-up. Two questions come up: that of control, and that of job loss. “For us, we answered both of them in two unique ways,” says Whigham. “On the control we assured everyone that the kill button is in place, and Amelia will not take over our business. We assured our CEO that Amelia will not make decisions in his stead. We then faced the fear of job loss, especially in my organization. I am targeting this technology specifically at people in my organization.
“Is there going to be job destruction?” asks Whigham. “Probably. I don’t see how you can escape that. But will it be job destruction or job transitioning? Those people that are on the front lines having soft-skill conversations that we’re trying to replicate, those are the skills we need. So we’ve been converting those people into trainers in the AI center of excellence, and leveraging those people to imbue us with business processes and conversations. They’re still involved in it, we’ve just transformed their jobs. And we made sure to map out that strategy and communicated with these people to let them know what we’re going to do. These people have now converted from being afraid of the AI to embracing it. In places we’ve implemented, the teams there consider the Amelia team a promotion.”
Moving forward, IHG plans to enhance its AI capabilities in different areas, creating an artificial intelligence technology stack. As different siloes explore their own AI solutions, they will share best practices internally and continue to grow. The idea being to build a cohesive experience that reflects the culture of IHG, and eventually work its way into financial services, the HR space, the sales department, and start using the technology to engage with guests. The opportunities, in Whigham’s mind, are boundless.
“Cognitive engagement is what Amelia does,” says Whigham. “There are other things that IPSoft does not do, and that’s not their business, and that will become other tools that I have in the stack. That ecosystem will become our version of AI.”