I am a chatbot sceptic. I think this is because they over promise and under deliver. They try to appear intelligent, but they’re not capable of true understanding. They remind me of bad search: where I can’t quite work out the right combination of words to get the information I want. I also find their attempts to be personable to be as annoying as clippy. I’m not alone with this point of view. Just today I read Justin Lee’s article Chatbots were the next big thing: what happened?
With that context I ran into Tim Warren, COO and co-founder of Ambit, while at the Hitech Awards in Christchurch. We connected after the event and I found out more about Ambit’s approach to chatbots. Tim has a diverse background. He started in software and then moved into finance, running Goldman Sachs/JB Were as COO. He and his co-founders spent quite a bit of time researching what sort of start-up they wanted to do, before settling on chatbots aimed at the enterprise (for now).
They came up with their first proof of concept in 2016 and by mid last year they had a product they could sell. They now have a reasonable amount of recurring revenue and their 14-person company is close to break even and growing quickly. There’s nothing like a little revenue to counter a dose of scepticism.
They like to describe their platform as WordPress for conversational AI. Customers can create their own chatbots, but at the moment this is done by conversational designers at Ambit. Their aim is to have a completely self-service product. They initially started using the MS Luis platform, but found that it had limitations, so they wrote their own.
Their core technology is trying to distil intent from utterances: that is matching what is typed into the chat window by the user to one of their core tasks. The system learns from examples. Typically, they need about 5 utterance examples to reasonably interpret a new utterances and connect it to an intent. Their system returns a confidence score for the various intents they have. For example, the following questions might all be around starting an application for a mortgage.
- I’d like to borrow some money for a house
- Can I apply for a mortgage?
- How do I get a loan for a property?
- What are your mortgage rates?
- What are your interest rates for a house loan?
A conversation is not represented linearly, but is a web of nodes. They have a demo where they can show how a web of nodes representing a conversation can be created quickly using their platform.
The other key differentiator is that they have a hierarchical language model that means while an individual chat design belongs to a particular customer, the language and synonyms belong to the industry and all customers in the industry benefit as Ambit learns more.
Another important part of the platform is the analytics, where they can see how many of the different types of conversations are happening. They can also see where drop offs are in conversation funnels, to inform them where they might need to change the design to improve performance. As part of this they can inspect conversations to help guide them and learn new utterances.
Their client applications fall into three categories:
- Navigate: helping people find information on the website
- Acquire: Using the bot to help generate sales leads
- Support: Using the bot to automate the repetitive tasks and leaving more difficult support tasks to humans.
They charge their customers a fixed monthly fee. For that they get a certain number of conversational nodes and a generous number of conversations that can happen on the platform. Integration with the website is simple, with the customer being able to tailor the appearance via CSS.
They have the ability to integrate voice to text – but have not seen the demand for it yet. At this stage they support English only, however they could build functionality using partner tools such as Watson from IBM as a stop gap before they build their own multi-lingual functionality.
They are too new to have really solid customer case studies and hard ROI metrics. They are working on that now. However, the customer value is self-evident: lower cost to serve and happier customer facing people because they don’t have to deal with repetitive, easy questions.
While Ambit haven’t converted this sceptic to a chatbot fan, I can see there is a business here. As they get more customers and build out the product the chatbots will only improve. I’ll be interested to see how the business develops.