How will chatbots and AI affect business travel?
How will chatbots and AI affect business travel?
By Adam Knights
Chances are, you've interacted with a chatbot without knowing ...
Chatbots are computer programs that mimic conversations with people using artificial intelligence or a set of rules. With or without realising you’re highly likely to have used one in your work or personal life.
Chatbots are also known as a talkbots, artificial conservational entities, bots, virtual assistants and intelligent personal assistants. Despite their many names they have been making a real buzz in the technology sphere for the last few years.
The majority of chatbots are powered through artificial intelligence (AI), the theory and development of computer systems to be able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence.
To fully understand where the explosion of chatbots has come from it is necessary to look at a brief history of AI.
1950 - The Turing test
Traditionally those tracing the history of AI start in 1950 when Alan Turing developed the Turing test. The test examines computer intelligence and requires a human to be unable to distinguish between computer and human answers to questions.
Skip over some 50 years to reach the next major date…
2001 - SmarterChild
Over 30 million users became attached to early chatbot, SmarterChild, available on AOL Instant Messenger and Windows Live Messenger.
2010 - Siri
Apple bought Siri, a virtual assistant with a voice-controlled natural language interface in 2010. A sassy chatbot arrives to the masses.
2012 - Google Now
Google Now was released in 2012 to answer questions and make recommendations to users with the ability to learn behaviour and predict your needs. By 2016 Google Now had evolved into Google Assistant.
2014 - The Turing test is cracked
Chatbot ‘Eugene Goostman’ represented as a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy passes the Turing test for the first time.
2016 - Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo, the device which connects to voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant Alexa arrives in the UK.
More and more businesses are adopting chatbots or predict the need to integrate one into their roadmap for the coming years. But what styles of chatbot are there?
There are differing styles of chatbot available. They range from glorified search engines able to provide answers to frequently asked questions to intelligent assistants able to provide a fully automated service with natural language processing. A middle ground is a bot-assisted agent monitored by humans for quality control. Whilst there are also content creation bots that learn from interaction and offer personalised suggestions.
How are chatbots perceived?
Chatbots: the positives and negatives
As with all new technology, Chatbots have attracted a vast amount of interest. Some critics praise them as the future of client interaction, whilst others are more sceptical.
Today when we require information, we go to our preferred search engine, go to multiple websites and click around to get the answer. Fans of chatbots believe that in the future we will use chatbots for a higher quality question and answer experience without requiring the need to browse through various websites or even interact with another human. With clients demanding information at an ever quicker rate chatbots appear to be a way of satisfying this need 24/7.
Chatbot advocates believe their major benefits include a superior customer service experience that allows for near instant response times regardless of time of day. As well as eliminating any language barriers. Customer service has transitioned from telephone to email to social media, with the next progression to chatbots.
Certain types of chatbots remove the need for any human interaction however many are presented in a human way, with emotive language, a name and picture. Furthermore, over time they will become more intelligent, turning the users input into more data and thus providing greater benefit to the customer in the future. However this is a concern in regards to the new General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) coming into force in May 2018. Adam Knights recently spoke to the Business Travel Magazine about his worries [above].
Done well chatbots increase brand affinity, loyalty and reinforce brand voice. However critics discuss technical issues and the fact that if done badly or incorrectly chatbots can frustrate users and damage brands. In 2016, Microsoft released Tay, an AI chatterbox invented to impersonate a 19 year old American girl. However, after just sixteen hours the technology was shut down due to making offensive remarks. The chatbot was not designed to make these inflammatory comments, however it had learnt them from those who interacted with it due to Natural Language Processing.
“If a machine has learned a client’s preferences, what are the legal implications of passing this information on? Who is the data controller? It is already hard enough to get a common interpretation of the regulations for our industry."
Adam Knights for Business Travel Magazine
Detractors of chatbots also focus on the fact that there will always be questions that they cannot answer; partly because they will never fully understand the nuances of language. Whilst supporters understand that chatbots allow customers and prospects to find better and quicker access to content. Furthermore, research suggests that many people are happy to use a chatbot to track down the right human. This area may also highlight generational differences in regard to new technology, with millennials most accepting of new technology.
After the initial investment of resources they will save time, money and labour over time. Chatbots and AI can perform highly repetitive tasks more quickly and eventually more accurately. Despite their current flaws there is no denying that chatbot technology has undeniable potential and one that will be tapped into for the years to come. However many of the chatbots created so far are focused towards leisure rather than business travel. This will be discussed in the next section.
Do you believe the positives of chatbots outweigh the negatives?
Chatbots and the travel industry
What impact will chatbots have on the business travel industry?
Chatbots are already starting to make serious inroads in leisure travel. Skyscanner has developed a bot that integrates with Facebook Messenger to search for flights and answer travel queries. Skyscanner has also developed a chatbot that allows flights to be booked via Amazon Alexa.
Not only can travel be booked through chatbots but they can advise travellers on the go and already in destination. KLM has developed a chatbot that plugs into Facebook Messenger. The chatbot evaluates airport conditions and offers suggestions about what to do before departure and gate numbers.
This is an approach increasing numbers of airlines are introducing to offer a basic customer service provision. Whilst hotel brand Hilton has released Connie, a concierge robot that uses AI to answer the requests of hotel guests.
But what about business travel?
Like most things in the travel industry chatbots reached the leisure market before the business travel arena. However, it is well known that where leisure travel goes business travel follows, so it would be correct to predict that it will not be long until bots infiltrate the corporate travel sphere.
Business travel is highly competitive and chatbots are a way in which many TMCs would be able to differentiate themselves. Advocates of chatbots believe that they will aid the business travel industry by improving and differentiating the booking process and customer service experience. In an ideal world, chatbots will provide business travellers and bookers with on demand information 24/7. Some even predict that chatbots will lead to TMCs employing more technologists than travel consultants.
However, this idealistic reality is just that. Business travel is far from straightforward with many variables and a huge amount of data. At present it is difficult to see how a chatbot would consolidate all this information and provide a client with a valuable tool. Select TMCs are using AI as a marketing tool but at this stage that is all it is. At the moment it is impossible to integrate the many suppliers a TMC works with into one chatbot. Without all the content available it is hard to see what the real benefit would be for the business traveller.
It may be that chatbots in the business travel sphere are selected for just one stage of the client – TMC relationship. The most obvious area would be the early travel booking process and communication with eCommerce. By selecting just one or two areas and starting on a smaller scale a successful bot could be more achievable. At some point in the future it might be possible to integrate the vast amount of data TMCs have into a travel management friendly bot, if this happens the potential of a travel management bot would be great.
Serko’s Zeno is one of the few chatbots on the market already showing undeniable potential. Zeno is an AI chatbot built on Serko’s Advanced Predictive Booking Platform, meaning that any travel suggestions made are based on travel previously made and the travellers live calendar. Zeno helps travellers to book, cancel, change search and manage business travel.
However, at present many businesses in the corporate travel sphere are taking a hesitant approach towards chatbots. They are deliberately choosing to be late adopters or not adopt at all. The risks involved in a chatbot providing poor information and damaging a reputation outweighs the benefits. Furthermore this waiting game will allow TMCs to establish whether chatbots are just a fad and whether they hold real value in the business travel sphere.