Thursday, March 06, 2008

US Army and Alaska Air Turn to Virtual Agents for Website Interactions

I am always interested in implementations of artificial intelligence and natural language query systems so I was pleased to read that both Alaska Air and the US Army have turned to virtual website agents to provide answers to queries from website visitors. The New York Times author chose to test Alaska Air's congenial "Jenn" (I wonder if she is related to Jenn Air ranges - Ha!) but I thought I would try out the more serious Sgt Star:

What are the odds of a new male recruit being sent to Iraq in the first year of enlistment?

In times of war, deployment is likely. The possibility of deployment depends on your MOS and unit of assignment. All Soldiers must be strong, trained and ready upon assignment to a unit and prior to any deployment, including training exercises, humanitarian missions or combat operations. In general, deployments can last about a year, more or less.

I was actually very impressed with this response to a fairly complex question. Obviously the good Sgt was able to recognize the relationship between my use of the word "odds" and "possibility" and "sent" with "deployment". He must have also associated "Iraq" with "current war". Although he did not totally understand my time frame parameter, he did explain that soldiers must be trained prior to any deployment leaving me with at least some idea of a passage of time before deployment would take place.

Although NYT's Joe Sharkey's interaction with Alaska Air's Jenn was not specifically analyzed, he apparently had an equally satisfying experience with her:

"Alaska Airlines and its subsidiary, Horizon Air, had introduced on the Web site a “virtual assistant named Jenn.” Jenn, it said, responds orally to typed questions, “asks follow-up questions when needed” and also provides a written response and displays the site’s relevant page. Jenn also has a personality, it said, and “answers many personal questions.”

Jenn is not annoying. She is depicted on the Web site as a young brunette with a nice smile. Her voice has proper inflections. Type in a question, and she replies intelligently. (And for wise guys fooling around with the site who will inevitably try to trip her up with, say, a clumsy bar pickup line, she politely suggests getting back to business.)

I like Jenn. Airline Web sites, which often have clumsy drop-down menus, can be difficult to maneuver, even for simple things like trying to determine what kind of a plane you will be on. But ask Jenn a question on a wide range of topics, and you will get a fast, sensible response that saves you time.

Airlines are becoming more dependent on their Web sites, not just for direct booking, but also for ancillary revenue from bookings for hotels and tours and for retail sales.

Jenn was designed by a technology company in Spokane, Wash., the Next IT Corporation (, which has a goal of simplifying interaction between people and computers, using natural-language communications to retrieve information and even ask follow-up questions to clarify intent.

While the Next IT voice technology depends on typed questions to elicit oral responses, the field is evolving. In a recent speech at Carnegie Mellon University, Bill Gates said that Microsoft was committed to developing more sophisticated methods that used two-way speech technology to improve the give and take between users and databases."

I also visited NextIT's website to check out the developers and see that the technology consultant is Dr. George Luger of the University of New Mexico. His AI book, Artificial Intelligence: Structures and Strategies for Complex Problem Solving (Addison-Wesley 2005) is now into its fifth edition.

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