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What AccuWeather’s Facebook chatbot says about AI

July 21, 2017 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

Artificial Intelligence is a term used to describe everything from Apple’s Siri to Google’s Deep Mind and is being leveraged for a wide range of applications from shopping to quantum computing. At its core, AI is the capacity of computing to perform tasks that correspond to decision making and learning by humans. True AI doesn’t just infer or make deductions, it understands natural language, and can develop based upon experience.

Today, AI powers everyday tools used by millions of people. With the rising popularity of voice-based interfaces such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa – and the increasingly-accurate recommendation tools offered by the likes of Netflix and Pandora – AI tools are becoming embedded in people’s everyday activities and expectations.

Meet the Bots

Chatbots are another booming implementation of AI. That said, not all of them are powered by AI. As Trish Mikita, AccuWeather’s VP of Digital Media Strategy points out, “There are plenty of dumb bots out there. Many bots are based upon simple decision trees that use a scripted format to (eventually) deliver answers to common questions. Mikita says AccuWeather experimented with this approach in the past, however its latest chatbot leverages true AI.

The company has just launched AccuWeather for Facebook Messenger. The AI-powered weather assistant handles plain-language questions from users and provides easy weather-related answers. According to Mikita, Facebook Messenger was the natural choice for this launch given its large user base and the fact that AccuWeather fans were already communicating with the company on Messenger. “Messenger is a great platform that extends our conversations with customers in a natural way.”

Natural Language, Real Answers

AccuWeather’s chatbot—which was dubbed Abbi in beta — strives to be natural in its conversation. “The goal with us is for users to be able to ask a question, for our chatbot to come with an intent, and then answer the question in a meaningful way,” says Mikita.

So, while Abbi can answer questions about the weather forecast, she can also advise on appropriate attire for the day. The idea is for the chatbot to provide an accurate response given the context of a run in Cape Cod or a business meeting in Manhattan.

According to Mikita, being able to respond, “no it’s going to be 75 and sunny, no need for a jacket today” is a great first step. However, as the chatbot evolves, she looks forward to answers like “not today, but you’ll need an umbrella if you are going to be out later tonight.” To get there, AccuWeather is logging all of its audience interactions with Abbi. “This helps us with all of our products, so we can better understand users’ intent.”

Evolution of AccuWeather AI

Another step in AccuWeather’s chatbot evolution will be developing a personality. “A bot absolutely needs to have a personality, though it is a big challenge.” First, says Mikita, you must understand intent and get the outputs to be accurate. “The next phase is that personality piece. Natural interactions should have a personality. But having a personality doesn’t mean it has to be irreverent, or jokey. It can be a science nerd. Getting that personality to match our brand voice is a very important aspect.”

Mikita says that in addition to the continued development of Abbi (which may well have a name change in her future as the bot’s personality and functionality evolve), we can expect more AI-based launches coming within the next few months. The long-term roadmap also includes wrapping the intelligence piece into the AccuWeather API and incorporating these functions into its subscription products. AccuWeather’s presence on Alexa – as well as its evolving chatbots and plans for improved and innovative implementations of AI in its premium products – offers what Mikita describes as an “innovation opportunity that helps our other ad supported platforms.”

The company is already seeing efficiency savings with customer service. And they look forward to emerging opportunities to monetize these innovations directly. In the meantime, however, the company’s investment in AI is paying off in its ability to better interact with consumers, to get to know them better and to better serve their needs.

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