According to a 2017 report from Grand View Research, the global chatbot market is expected to reach US$1.23 billion by 2025.
Looking to play in this space is Australian startup Clevertar. Founded by Tanya Newhouse and Dr Martin Luerssen, Clevertar allows businesses to create virtual agents or assistants to interact with people.
Given businesses often give their customer service staff scripts to guide their conversations, Clevertar can tap into and adapt these to have a virtual agent do the talking for them.
“With our virtual agent platform we can take the pressure off stretched human resources and allow people to have their questions answered, in a way that’s friendly and engaging,” Newhouse said.
Clevertar was born out of research conducted by Dr Luerssen and his team at Flinders University, who were investigating the use of embodied virtual agents to influence and interact with people.
“They found that people respond favourably to virtual agents, and that people are more honest and better understand and engage with information provided by a virtual character, compared with text alone,” Newhouse said.
“Our idea was to create a platform so that anyone could create their own virtual agent conversations for their users.”
The process of commercialising research coming out of a university was “an adventure”, Newhouse said: customers, of course, have different motivations to that of research, so the startup needed to make cutting-edge tech as simple and flexible as possible to allow for a variety of use cases.
“An interesting challenge has been creating an app with a virtual character as a focal point – there are very few precedents. So we experimented with this, until we found a combination where interacting with a virtual person is intuitive from the get-go,” she explained.
The original technology, Newhouse said, involved animating a character’s head on a desktop computer. This would then be connected to the user’s calendar, so the character would remind them to do things such as take their medication.
Now, Clevertar allows clients to develop the virtual companions capable of having conversations; this process begins with deciding what kinds of conversations should be created and scripted, looking at what the objective is and what data the client wants collected.
Next, Newhouse explained, comes writing the scripts as a series of dialogues in a decision tree and inputting these into the content management system, and finally creating access codes and deploying the Clevertar to users.
“As your users engage with the system you can receive alerts in real-time on individual users, create reports, and track engagement,” she explained.
Now targeting clients across industries such as finance, legal, and professional services – “anywhere that scripted conversations are already used to support, advise, and gather required information from people – Clevertar began by looking at the health sector.
“It was great to get our start in health because the platform needed to provide standardised health content in a way that was personalised for an individual, and designed to help them self-manage their condition,” she said.
“Because these are principles that apply anywhere that structured advice is needed, it means our platform has proven use cases, even if the content in a new area seems quite different.”
According to Newhouse, Clevertar has seen particularly strong interest from clients who are looking to contact people more effective by “triaging” users into – or away from – the service, and by offering education and self-help along the way.
“Essentially Clevertar provides a way to increase engagement, focusing on the high value, not high cost, consumers,” she said.
A number of other Australian tech companies are working in this space. Among them is the ASX-listed Flamingo AI, which earlier this year announced trial partnerships with both Credit Union Australia’s health insurance arm and US-based Fortune 100 insurer Liberty Mutual.
The trial with Liberty Mutual has seen the insurer use Flamingo’s cognitive virtual assistant platform to guide customers through the process of getting a quote for their car insurance, through to payment.
Flamingo has two virtual assistants, Rosie and Maggie. Billed as a virtual sales and service assistant, Rosie can guide customers through research, getting quotes, applying, and payment, while Maggie is classed as a virtual enquiry assistant, answering questions customers have when they arrive at a website.
New Zealand’s Soul Machines, meanwhile, has created ‘Nadia’, a virtual assistant voiced by Cate Blanchett to help users navigate through information about and interact with the National Disability Insurance Scheme online.
Clevertar has raised over $2 million in funding, and won a $500,000 grant from the government’s Accelerating Commercialisation program earlier this year; with this funding in its pocket, Newhouse said Clevertar is focused on growing across multiple industries.
She said, “We also want to continue to prove the benefits of Clevertar engagement for behaviour change and patient self-management.”
Image: Tanya Newhouse. Source: Supplied.