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Hello, This Is Artificial Intelligence. How Can I Help You? Eye on A.I.

People who call companies to ask questions about their cable bills or complain about their Internet service being out are increasingly talking to artificial intelligence.

Natural language processing, a subset of A.I. that helps computers understand speech, has become good enough that it's being used to listen and respond to basic customer questions.

Over the past year, Google, Amazon and business software firm Twilio have all ramped up their marketing of A.I.-powered software for call centers. Their sales pitch is that the technology can handle customer service calls more quickly while freeing human agents to handle more complicated questions.

Less discussed publicly, at least, is that A.I. will also likely let companies save money by reducing the number of call center workers that they need.

In fact, customer service, which includes call center technology, is one of the most common arenas for using A.I., tech publisher O'Reilly Media said in a report earlier this year. Only research and development ranked higher.

The path to this point hasn't exactly been smooth. Three years ago, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google started touting voice-based digital assistants and online chatbots.

They said that their A.I. could handle complex tasks, like reading users' calendars, identifying their travel schedules, and then proactively booking them hotel rooms for those dates. But the technology failed to live up the hype.

Since then, A.I. has improved, explained Olive Huang, a vice president of research for analyst firm Gartner. Although it still has room for improvement, the technology is now good enough for some simpler tasks like booking a hotel room when asked.

Companies are increasingly ready to give A.I. another chance, Huang said. That's particularly true, she said, because customer call volume is rising quickly and increasing staffing to handle it is expensive.

Still, natural language processing has its limits. For instance, the technology often fails to understand people with certain accents.

“My accent has always been impossible for Amazon Alexa,” said Huang, who described her voice in English as a blend of Singaporean Chinese and German.

Additionally, companies are still figuring out how to smoothly transition callers from digital assistants to human operators. People invariably speak differently based on who or what they're talking to.

“If I know I’m talking to a human, then I will talk like a human,” Huang said. “If I know I’m talking to a virtual agent, then it’s like talking to a five-year old—I will be precise.”

And while some voice technologies are increasingly sounding more human-like by incorporating  “umms” and pauses, people can find this “creepy,” she said. When a virtual assistant sounds too human, “then you don’t know how to talk to it,” Huang said.

Jonathan Vanian
@JonathanVanian
jonathan.vanian@fortune.com

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A.I. IN THE NEWS

Facial-recognition goes public. Megvii, a Chinese startup specializing in facial-recognition technology, plans to go public in Hong Kong, according to a CNBC report. The company, whose main rival is Chinese tech firm Sensetime, recently raised $750 million in funding at a valuation of over $4 billion, the report said.

Scanning faces in Uganda. Huawei is supplying facial-recognition and other data-crunching technologies to law enforcement in Uganda, The Financial Times reported. A Uganda police spokesperson told the newspaper, “The cameras are already transforming modern day policing in Uganda, with facial recognition and artificial intelligence as part of policing and security.”

DeepMind co-founder is taking a “time out.” DeepMind, the high-profile A.I. research lab that’s part of Google, has placed co-founder Mustafa Suleyman on leave for unspecified reasons, Bloomberg News reported. A spokesperson told the news service that “Mustafa is taking time out right now after 10 hectic years,” but did not say when he would return.

Even Xbox? Microsoft contractors listened to audio recordings of Xbox players in order to use the data to improve Microsoft’s A.I.-powered voice technologies, tech publication Motherboard reported. Several other big tech companies like Amazon and Google have also faced criticism for using contract workers to listen to audio recordings.

AFRICA’S A.I. HOPES

Wim Delva, acting director of the school for data science and computational thinking at Stellenbosch University, in South Africa, writes in Quartz (per The Conversation) about universities debuting data science and A.I. research initiatives in Africa, and how they may differ from projects in other countries. Delva writes: “It is human nature to focus on immediate, locally perceived problems before venturing into fixing more remote ones. So people and organizations from elsewhere in the world may not always identify and try to tackle the African continent’s problems. These issues include improving access and equity in health care; improving road safety and bolstering food security.”

EYE ON A.I. TALENT

Recursion Pharmaceuticals has hired Imran Haque as vice president of data science. Haque, who specializes in machine learning and drug discovery, was previously the chief scientific officer of genomics company Freenome.

Breather, a startup focusing on office rentals, picked Philippe Bouffaut to be chief technology officer. Bouffaut was previously the vice president of products and engineering at public relations software company Cision.

EYE ON A.I. RESEARCH

Electrochemical A.I. action. Researchers from New York University’s school of engineering published a paper about using deep learning to improve the process of electrosynthesis, an environmentally-friendly chemical synthesis technique. Miguel Modestino, an NYU assistant professor and co-author of the paper, said in a statement that his team believes “this is the first time AI has been used to optimize an electrochemical process.”

A.I. to predict ozone concentrations. Researchers from the University of Toronto, Carnegie Mellon University, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, National Center for Atmospheric Research, and University of Science and Technology of China published a paper about using deep learning to predict ozone concentrations during the summer in the U.S. Although the A.I. system was effective, the researchers said “other modern machine learning algorithms have the potential for even greater gains in performance.”

FORTUNE ON A.I.

Huawei Launches New A.I. Chip As Company Enters ‘Battle Mode’ To Survive – By Eamon Barrett

No Humans Needed: Chinese Company Uses AI to Read the News, Books – By Alyssa Newcomb

How Amazon and Silicon Valley Seduced the Pentagon – By James Bandler, Anjali Tsui , and Doris Burke

BRAIN FOOD

I guess we’ll find out how dangerous this really is. Two young graduate students have created A.I. software that can generate convincing prose that they said was based on similar technology created by the high-profile OpenAI research group, Wired reported. What’s noteworthy about the research is that OpenAI originally said it wanted to keep the secret sauce behind its technology private, because it was worried it would be used by bad actors, like for creating realistic fake news. The graduate students created the language-generating tech to show that its possible for many people to create these kinds of complicated systems, not just well-funded research groups.