Where Facebook and France go, AI follows

Sitel Group - March 1, 2018 - 125

 After breakthroughs in computer processing and data collection, artificial intelligence (AI) has really begun to demonstrate its potential for image analysis, voice recognition and natural language understanding and processing. But what’s next?

At its first interactive exhibition – Connexions – held at the Station F startup hub in the heart of Paris, the leading lights from Facebook’s burgeoning Artificial Intelligence department offered attendees a clear idea of where AI is going and why France will have a major say in how the technology develops.

From self-driving cars to chatbots and beyond, the buzz around AI has become deafening. Discussions about its potential uses and potential dangers, which were once the preserve of tech blogs, are now being held in the mainstream media. As such, it’s leading to confusion for businesses and consumers alike as to what exactly the technology is and what it really can do.

Where is AI going?

The Connexions conference, at which Sitel Group companies TSC and Novagile were guests, was an opportunity to bring clarity to this conversation, via a panel of experts. Alexandre Lebrun, Engineering Director for FAIR (Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research) French team, Antoine Bordes, Director of FAIR French Team, and Yann LeCun, the Director of Research for Facebook worldwide; fielded questions about how to define AI today and how it will develop tomorrow.

In terms of its definition, Facebook, along with every major company involved in AI’s development classifies it as “Making a computer do something that only a human or animal can do,” said Yann LeCun “What we call artificial intelligence today will simply be called computer science tomorrow.”

The panel also shares the consensus that within the next 15-20 years, if work and investment continues at the same pace, AI will be responsible for genuinely revolutionizing society as a whole. Whether through fully autonomous cars, real-time language translation via any communication channel, or bespoke healthcare services, it will be the virtual oil that makes digital life run smoothly and without friction.

To empower, not replace humans

However, even now, AI, in the right context, is proving itself to be an innovative tool for enhancing human performance, rather than a system for automating a host of current jobs. And according to Facebook, it’s in this area where the exciting work is being done.

It’s a line of thinking perfectly in synch with Sitel Group’s philosophy and with the current activities within Novagile, the Group’s software venture. Novagile’s R&D team is looking at how to leverage an expert’s experience – such as a senior contact center agent – rather than a coder’s development skills, to optimize chatbots. Only agents have the requisite in-depth knowledge and understanding of a brand’s ecosystem or of the real-world situations in which a bot will be expected to perform. It’s an innovation Novagile calls Bot Trainer, and is one that can be applied to any other solution that uses natural language understanding.

“The challenge with most chatbot implementations is the lack of data that informs them and the commitment and rigor to optimize them based on real-world input and context,” explains Stéphane Akkaoui, Novagile’s Head of R&D. “While Development teams may be the right choice to build solutions, they are not always best suited to build the comprehensive dataset to train them.”

Expert tuition

Hence Bot Trainer, which is already being tested by Sitel Group clients. “It is a platform built for non-technical customer care agents so that they can do the crucial work of optimizing the understanding capabilities of the AI-powered solutions we build,” says Stéphane Akkaoui.

The platform works in concert with a client’s automated experiences, including chatbots, and grows smarter over time as it receives more training and contextual understanding from customer care agents and from interactions with customers. And as such could be used as a tool for enhancing the understanding of any AI machine.

France – the intelligent choice for AI

As for the role that France is set to play in the ongoing development of AI, according to Facebook, it’s a country that offers a winning combination of talent and facilities.

Paris is already home to the company’s largest AI research group – 30 people – and Facebook is looking to double its investment in terms of experts, by recruiting a further 30 researchers from the existing AI ecosystem in Paris and giving the group an extra €10 million in funding. “These announcements should be seen as a clear validation that our lab in Paris is a success,” said Antoine Bordes.

In the same week that Connexions opened its doors to the public, fellow Silicon Valley colossus Google announced that it was set to double its office space in Paris and to open a dedicated AI research facility in the capital. As for why, the company cited the city’s world-leading universities and schools dedicated to the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics as the reason behind the decision.

A bourgeoning start-up scene

Indeed, Station F – where Facebook held court – is the biggest startup incubator in Europe and one of the largest in the world. It has space for 3,000 entrepreneurs, and has attracted investment and support from Facebook and Microsoft among others. It even has offshoots of the country’s best schools and universities embedded within the campus.

It is also a symbol of France’s digital ambitions and a clear indicator of the country’s capabilities and depth of talent across cutting edge industries.

“France is a very good place to make investments,” said Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. “There are some of the best researchers in the world here, and the French have a real love for research.”

It also has a burgeoning startup scene that the company has been quick to acknowledge and support, both directly and via its activities at Station F. “All these French companies are developing products or services that radiate all over the world,” added Sheryl Sandberg.


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