Nuance's Nina virtual assistant gets better with time, and a little human help

nuance nina assistant sddefault resized  1
You might know Nuance, the natural voice and AI lab headquartered on the outskirts of Boston, from its popular Dragon NautrallySpeaking transcription software for PC. But what you might not know is that the firm’s conversational AI, which powers the customer service platforms of 6,500 companies around the globe, handles billions of transactions every year. And it is now capable of more.

On Thursday, Nuance launched a new version of Nina, its AI-powered, cross-platform assistant melding of machine smarts and human intelligence. From a customer perspective, it is just like any other AI-powered voice assistant — Nina can respond to questions (think the status of a pizza order, for example) and walk you through a conscripted list of choices. But unlike Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana, Nina is sharp enough to know when it can’t answer a question — and to throw it to a human specialist who can.

“The advantage of AI is, they’re always available,” Robert Weiderman, Nuance’s executive vice president and general manager, told Digital Trends. “Unlike a human, they never have a bad night — you can self-service 24/7.”

Amazon Echo deal

Here’s how it works: Nuance’s data engineers use Nina Coach, an automated learning tool, to train it on a business’ ins and outs. Once it has gotten a handle on the basics, it goes to work, fielding between 80 to 90 percent of customer calls, SMS messages, and texts from chat platforms like Facebook Messenger.

“General-purpose assistants like Alexa and Siri know a little about a lot,” Weiderman said. “Nina can go deep.”

When Nina is unsure about a question, it will consult help — human help. In those rare cases, Nuance’s AI tries to match customers to reps with relevant expertise. Then, it provides those reps with a transcript and history of the conversation, and a list of likely answers in order of confidence. The call center staffer’s choice is recorded, analyzed, and folded back into what Weiderman calls the “semantic brain” — Nina’s collective intelligence.

“It’s just like people,” Weiderman said. “Kids learn to have conversations, go to high school and college, get a doctorate, and become an expert in something. Nina’s the same way — it has a learning loop will eventually create 100 percent confident answers.”

facebook messenger 2017 android

Weiderman sees it as a way to free up hands in customer support centers, and to help businesses prioritize the most important — and difficult — requests without impacting other customers’ experience. With Nuance’s infrastructure up and running, call center agents can service three to six customers at a time, Weiderman said.

“You can turn on support for messaging, but you can’t control the volume that’s going to come at you,” he said. “The days when company’s could control how consumers spoke with them is going away. First the web came along, and you could call or go to the website. And now there’s chat apps like Facebook Messenger, Line, and Kik, and Internet of Things devices like Amazon’s Echo.”

“Nina’s able to support a growing number of channels, including voice, mobile and Internet of Things devices like Alexa,” he said.

Human-augmented intelligence is just the tip of Nina’s iceberg. Nuance also announced asynchronous messaging, which lets customers start a conversation with a business’s assistant on one platform and pick it up later, on another. You can text a credit card company about an erroneous charge via Facebook Messenger, for example, and get status updates via SMS every hour until the problem is resolved.

Nina’s also gaining the ability to transition customers to digital channels. If you call a company’s support center and Nuance’s automated system can’t find the answer to your question, you’ll get two options: Wait for a human agent, or continue the conversation on a digital channel like Facebook Messenger.

“We don’t expect text message conversations to be instantaneous,” Weiderman said. “And when you’re dealing with something like an insurance claim, it can take days of back and forth to get the paperwork in order.”

Nuance rolled out the new Nina features to ICBC Bank, one of the largest in China, in 2012. More than a billion users interact with its support via messaging app WeChat, Weiderman said, accounting for 85 percent of all customer service requests.

“We’re adding cognitive, data-driven machine learning to our products,” Weiderman said. “We’re the only vendor combining the tooling, intelligence, and analytics of natural language processing and cognitive technologies […] to deliver automated and assisted solutions targeted to enterprise needs.

Cars

Lyft and Aptiv’s self-driving car program has come a long way (but not far enough)

Many companies talk about self-driving cars, but Lyft and Aptiv are already using a fleet of them to transport paying customers in Las Vegas. Hop in for a close look at the tech of autonomous cars, and the challenges they face.
Cars

Tesla cuts workforce by 7 percent, ends referral program to trim costs

Tesla has announced plans to trim its workforce by seven percent, and it will end the referral program that rewards customers who help it sell cars. These measures are ways to cut costs and boost profits.
Computing

This ‘computer mouse’ sets the new size standard for portable computing

The Raspberry Pi is an amazingly capable little computer and it's small enough that it can fit just about anywhere. Even in a computer mouse — if you're willing to build a custom chassis for it.
Gaming

Epic Games graded ‘F’ on customer service by Better Business Bureau

Epic Games, the studio behind Fortnite, received an "F" rating from the Better Business Bureau over complaints against its customer service and issues with exchanges and refunds. Epic Games said that it has addressed the issues.
Mobile

OpenTable points can now be used to whittle down cost of a hotel stay

Have some OpenTable Dining Points built up? Now those points can also be used to make your own hotel discounts. OpenTable is teaming up with Kayak to use points as discounts on participating hotels.
Mobile

Get $100 discount on the Razer Phone 2 for a limited time

The Razer Phone 2 is finally here, and it's got upgraded specs, that super-smooth 120Hz display, and an updated design. Here's absolutely everything you need to know about the Razer Phone 2.
Deals

REI slashes prices on Suunto, Garmin, and Fitbit Versa smartwatches

Though fitness trackers and smartwatches can get pretty pricey, REI is offering some sweet discounts on top brands. Right now, you can get a new smartwatch from Fitbit, Suunto, and Garmin for up to 35 percent off its normal price.
Social Media

Twitter suffers privacy scare as bug reveals tweets of protected accounts

If you set your Twitter account to private and you have an Android device, you'd better check your settings now. Twitter says it's just fixed a four-year-old bug that flipped the privacy switch to make the account public.
Wearables

Check out the four cool Swatch watches you can use for mobile payments

Swatch has announced its Swatchpay technology is now available in Switzerland, enabling mobile payments from your Swatch watch. It works in a similar way to Apple Pay and Google Pay. Here's everything about it.
Mobile

How to jailbreak your iPhone on iOS 12: A beginner’s guide

The latest jailbreaking tools for iOS 12 make freeing your iOS device easier than ever. This guide will teach you how to jailbreak your iPhone or iPad, and explain what jailbreaking will do for you.
Social Media

Spice up your Instagram videos by adding your top tunes to the soundtrack

Have you ever taken a beautiful video, only to have it ruined by some jerk in the background yelling curse words? Here's a list of apps you can use to add your own music to Instagram posts as well as your Story.
Home Theater

Dolby’s secret recording studio app may soon exit stealth mode

In secret testing since June, Dolby's stealth recording and social network app may soon be ready to make an appearance. Dolby 234 blends unique noise-canceling tech with Instagram-like audio filters.
Business

Google is buying mysterious smartwatch tech from The Fossil Group for $40 million

Google is about to step up its smartwatch game. The company has agreed to buy an unnamed smartwatch technology from The Fossil Group for a hefty $40 million. Considering the acquisition, it's clear Google is serious about smartwatches.
Mobile

Here’s how to take a screenshot on an iPad, step by step

The ability to capture screenshots may not be the iPad's most glamorous feature, but it's one of its most useful. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to take a screenshot on an iPad, whether it's an iPad Pro from 2018 or an older iPad model.