NoHold, a Milpitas, California-based artificial intelligence (AI) company that pioneered chatbots in the 1990s, has launched a "quickstart" platform targeted towards small to medium size businesses (SMBs) and individuals interested in creating virtual assistants quickly, easily, and cheaply.
The Sicura Quickstart platform allows SMBs and individuals to create a virtual assistant automatically by uploading word documents, tables, PDFs, and images. No programming or advanced technical skills are required to get "Albert" up and running, however documents do need to be properly formatted, which NoHold founder Diego Ventura said is fairly easy to do.
"Companies that create products very often create a manual to go with those products. If we can create a virtual assistant as a byproduct of creating that manual, then we help a lot of people because that's a process that's already established," Ventura told ZDNet.
Depending on the length of the document, Albert can be functional within minutes. At present, the machine learning algorithm is able to process 100 pages per minute.
"Small businesses have a completely different set of resources and they're not going to adopt virtual assistants or chatbots unless it's super easy for them to do," Ventura said.
The virtual assistants can be integrated into websites or connected to Facebook Messenger, Cisco Spark, and Salesforce.
Virtual assistants don't need to be customer-facing; they can be created for internal processes, Ventura said. For example, a small business could create a virtual assistant for their employees based off of its human resources handbook.
The Sicura Quickstart platform also offers basic analytics, allowing users to view how many interactions took place on a specific date; what are the most popular questions asked and whether or not end-users found the answers to be sufficient; and the top countries that questions are coming from. The platform also shows what questions are being asked in real-time.
The enterprise version of Sicura, which has a four-week implementation process, has more complex capabilities but works in a similar fashion in that it allows enterprises with corpora of documents to create virtual assistants.
"This has the advantage of being fairly comprehensive because you're basically saying: 'I don't know what the end user is interested in so I'm going to cover all the content'," Ventura said.
However, enterprises can also provide interaction samples from conversations that occurred on channels such as live chat. Sicura's machine learning algorithm crunches through those session logs and returns with clusters of information. The algorithm is then able to identify what customers are interested in and how they express themselves.
Ventura incorporated NoHold in 1999, raised $15 million in 2000, and led the company into profitability in 2003. He admitted there are other platforms in the market that allow people with no programming skills to create virtual assistants, but said those platforms tend to have minimal functionality, require users to script out every possible permutation of a conversation, and often deliver "gimmicky" chatbots.
"The way they go about it is not really scalable and it's not really conducive to creating meaningful virtual assistants," he said.
Ventura, a computer scientist, has been working in the field of artificial intelligence for decades. In 2003, he received a patent for his technology titled "Internet expert system and method using free-form messaging in a dialogue format". He envisions a future where everybody has a virtual assistant and those virtual assistants are able to connect to and interact with each other.
Ventura said the companies who provide a platform for individuals to create their own virtual assistants -- ultimately building an ecosystem of virtual assistants -- will lead the market, rather than companies who create a single virtual assistant persona to be customised and deployed across various industries.
"You can create a Wikipedia-type effect where people build their own content," Ventura said. "I think that has the promise of being a very powerful solution."
He added that in the future, enterprises could have virtual assistants for every line of business, and those virtual assistants connected to each other so that information can be exchanged between them or one virtual assistant can refer the user into another virtual assistant.
"Why not break the project down and allow people who deal with licensing to create a virtual assistant that knows everything about [licensing] and allow the people that deal with subscriptions to create a virtual assistant that knows everything about that?" Ventura said.
"Then by being able to put them altogether, you still have the benefit of every business unit dealing with their own information, but you can still render an experience where the one virtual assistant you go to knows about a lot of things across the business."
NoHold is currently developing a platform that allows virtual assistants to connect with each other.
To date, more than 630 virtual assistants have been created using Sicura. In 2015, Ventura said there were 30 million interactions across all these assistants.
NoHold is currently one of the very few companies to build a virtual assistant with a male persona. Other voice-enabled or text-based virtual assistants in the market include Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, IPsoft's Amelia, Microsoft's Cortana, and Flamingo's Rosie.
According to a recent study commissioned by conversational commerce company Flamingo, a majority of businesses believe chatbots should have a young female persona because interactions between young females and other individuals are perceived to have the lowest amount of friction. However, the majority of consumers indicated they'd prefer an older gender-neutral chatbot.