Nuance's Project Pathfinder uses AI to build smarter virtual assistants

Companies with large amounts of live chat and call centre transcripts should be able to replace laborious conversation-design processes with Nuance's upcoming automated tool.

Conversational AI specialist Nuance has announced a new project called Pathfinder, which aims to take much of the manual drudgery out of building dialogue models for virtual assistants (VAs). The new data- and AI-driven system combines chat log transcripts with advanced Natural Language Understanding (NLU) technology to boost the 'conversational intelligence' of VAs, resulting in more efficient two-way interactions with customers.

There are three main components of conversational AI, Paul Tepper, principal product manager of AI and machine learning at Nuance, told ZDNet: to understand user requests and generate intents and concepts; to deliver answers, both simple and complex; and to enable complex two-way dialogues.

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Image: Nuance

Today, there's plenty of machine learning and AI involved in the understanding part, but "when you move to answering the question, it starts to fade away a little bit," Tepper said. "For simple FAQs, there's AI involved there, but when you get into more complex answers — maybe you need to dip into a database or talk to an API — you need a lot more people. The next level is dialogue, where a person says something and maybe it's incomplete, or maybe it involves a long business process to complete. The way those kind of tasks are accomplished today in virtual assistants is via specialists — we call them 'conversational designers', who often have a background in sociolinguistics."

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Conversational designers work out the business rules and processes, and then design dialogues — basically building a graph or flowchart. "This is a very human process," Tepper said, "it involves a lot of meetings — weeks and weeks of meetings, talking to subject-matter experts across the contact centre. Companies can end up with hundreds, even thousands, of pages of these documents describing their different flows."

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Image: Nuance

With Project Pathfinder, Nuance is aiming to automate this time-consuming, manual and error-prone process. "The end goal, maybe several years down the line, is you dump data in and you get a dialogue system out", said Tepper.

So far, Nuance has built a tool that takes conversational data — live chat and transcribed phone calls from contact centres — and carries out 'intent discovery' where similar chats are grouped together based on similar language. "The new innovation is, once you pick one of these intent patterns, we look at the 'turn level' of the conversation: we try to identify commonalities across the different turns, or exchanges between the contact centre representative and the user," Tepper explained. "From there, we can automatically generate a dialogue graph that a designer can then manipulate — it's more like an AI Photoshop for dialogue, rather than a replacement for a designer," he added.

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Image: Nuance

In the current Pathfinder system, each conversation represents a single path with no branching. "But when you aggregate across all the different chats, you get to see the different ways it could go, and from that we get what we call a 'yarn ball' chart. We can then focus on the highest-volume chats and, in the end, get to a dialogue that was created from data, without having to talk to anybody," said Tepper. This can then be exported to conversational AI tooling, or handed off to higher authority.

Customers who have used Nuance's beta Pathfinder release are also excited about using it for call centre analytics, Tepper said — to examine the structure and flow of conversations, and discover where agents are going off-script, or for training purposes, for example. Financial organisations will also find it useful for compliance purposes, he added — "making sure that agents are saying the right things," as he put it.

SEE: How to implement AI and machine learning (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

As a result of this feedback, Tepper said, the Pathfinder technology may be incorporated into two products later this year: "one that's fully integrated into our VA-building tool suite, and the analytics capability — we're still looking at the opportunity there, because Pathfinder wasn't originally designed to do that."

According to Tepper, this sort of tool should encourage companies that were previously put off by the laborious manual conversation-design process to create virtual assistants. The key, as ever, is data: "a lot of companies have live chat, and more and more are recording contact centre conversations — there's all this data that's just unlocked potential."

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