The Theatro Blog

A recap of Conversational Interaction Conference 2019

The Conversational Interaction conference met in San Jose on March 11-12. This conference has met annually since about 2008 and in recent years has focused on attempts to make human-computer interactions more natural and conversational and less structured or rigidly defined.  A key development has been the rise of digital assistants that converse with employees or customers in a way that allows for an intuitive back and forth. One of the goals and benefits of this kind of interaction is the increased efficiency it affords users. For all these reasons, the CI conference is a good venue to showcase how Theatro’s communication platform and Intelligent Virtual Assistant use a hybrid approach to enable user interactions. It also serves as a valuable opportunity to see the state of the art and to stimulate reflection on how Theatro can continue to push the envelope in enabling efficient, intuitive interactions for the hourly workforce which has so rarely received the benefit of such technology.

I spoke at the conference in a session titled “how AI enables dynamic information access to a truly mobile retail workforce,” which is all about making employees more effective and efficient, which is a great fit for Theatro. The first speaker’s presentation had to do with an Alexa-esque assistant for use in office workplaces, which could transcribe meetings and create action items. The presentation was impressive and the technology served to make the employees in view more efficient (by automating certain tasks); but it also provided an excellent contrast to the kinds of employees that we at Theatro are empowering and making more efficient, and how their needs and tasks are in many ways quite different than those of highly connected, less mobile, technology-enabled office workers.

My presentation focused on our hybrid approach to enabling the mobile hourly worker, using intuitive structured speech for routine tasks that are more transactional in nature; and using more conversational language for more open ended sorts of interactions.  The talk also addressed some of the design and implementation challenges we’ve faced and how we’re tackling those using knowledge that we have about our users’ context and history to create a dynamic, personalized user experience. The talk was well received and generated some engaging questions from the audience.

Beyond the scope of my presentation, there were a number of themes and trends the conference touched on. Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence figures prominently in the keynotes and multiple talks, specifically around automating or streamlining certain tasks. There was also, naturally, a large focus on the proliferation of intelligent assistants (some more intelligent than others!) and the various “skills” and “actions” made available to users — and the relative (sometimes debatable) usefulness they provide. There also continues to be lots of research into and discussion around chatbots and how they can be leveraged for various commercial and social purposes.

One of the most interesting talks was at the conclusion of the conference and was philosophical in nature. It was a discussion of “what we believe about the mind” and how that is influencing and directing research into and implementation of Artificial Intelligence. It was a very thought provoking way to end the conference, and to ponder the future role of technology as a constantly developing tool for us to use.

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