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AI gets personal

Can chatbots help us be human?

By Richard McGill Murphy

I’ve spent the last couple days at the shoot for a ServiceNow video that will introduce the next release of the NOW platform, dropping in early September. I won’t give away the plot, but it stars actor Brian Michael Jones in the role of a ServiceNow Virtual Agent, the conversational chatbot technology that will be included in the release.

ServiceNow’s approach to AI isn’t messianic. Our tech doesn’t promise to cure cancer, end poverty or eliminate fake news. Instead, it’s about automating routine work so that people can focus on more strategic activities that create value for their companies and meaning for them.

Brian’s character doesn’t (yet) have a name—for now we’re just calling him “ServiceNow AI.” He looks a lot like the French cartoon character Tintin, an intrepid journalist who travels the world fighting evildoers with his dog Snowy and their best friend, Captain Haddock.

We introduced the AI character back in February, on the occasion of our last big platform release. In that first video, ServiceNow AI comes across as tech that creates better experiences for people by automating many of the routine, repetitive processes that make work tedious—things like replacing a broken laptop, onboarding a new employee, resolving generic customer issues and mitigating cybersecurity breaches.

The persona on display in that video is a sweet, self‑effacing guy who zips around the office, using machine learning and predictive analytics to solve problems for employees before the employees even know they have a problem. In one scene, AI slides a box of Kleenex in front of an employee who briefly looks confused and then erupts in a sneeze. In another, AI scrolls through thousands of knowledge‑base articles and then slides one onto the monitor of a frustrated customer service rep, whose mood suddenly improves when he realizes that he now has the information he needs to solve the customer’s problem.

In that first video, AI was invisible to the human workers he supported. The new Virtual Agent technology has a known presence in that we’re creating individual chatbots with whom users can interact using natural language. You can also use the NOW platform to create custom chatbots that handle almost any type of request inside an organization.

We humans have a long history of investing technology with human traits. Back in the second century A.D., the Roman satirist Lucian of Samosata wrote a story about a sorcerer’s apprentice afflicted by a cabal of animated brooms. In 1920, the Czech playwright Karel Čapek introduced the word “robot” (from the Slavic robota, or serf labor) in his play R.U.R., about a robot revolt that leads to the extinction of the human race.

Since then, pop culture has tended to portray intelligent machines as either cute (Rosie in the Jetsons, Wall‑E) or terrifying (HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Skynet in the Terminator movies). From a psychological perspective, you could argue that cute robots represent a sublimation of automation anxiety. By portraying intelligent machines as charming and subservient, we assert human primacy over them. Scary, destructive robots express our fear of replacement in a more direct manner.  

In the AI space, Apple, Google and Microsoft have invested considerable resources to create hip, pleasant personas for their virtual assistants. In a recent Workflow article, Christopher Null reported that many tech companies are hiring creative talent to construct elaborate backstories for chatbots, on the theory that users are more likely to interact with bots that are both smart and relatable.

At the end of the day, tech vendors personify AI tools because they want to create good user experiences. People are more likely to interact with relatable AIs. And machine learning algorithms need users to provide the training data that makes them smarter and more useful over time.  In principle, this virtuous circle should yield technology that makes it easier to be human.

Richard McGill Murphy is the editor in chief of Workflow. A journalist and social anthropologist by background, he runs a research and publishing program at ServiceNow that studies how emerging technologies are shaping the future of work.


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