Growing up, one of the things that fascinated me about the old Star Trek shows was the crew’s ability to find out virtually anything from the ship’s computer, simply by asking: “Computer, what’s the political situation on Rigel V?” The computer would respond instantly with an appropriate summary and analysis, with details upon request.

Thirty years ago, that was sci-fi. Today it is fast becoming a reality.

I had the opportunity recently to discuss some of the exciting capabilities of AI-enabled conversation during an executive panel at the Conversational Commerce Conference in San Francisco. Today, most people are familiar with the concept of intelligent chatbots, such as Siri and Alexa, that can perform a quick web search in order to curate a music playlist, or answer a question: “Hey Siri, what’s the weather like in Boston tomorrow?” But the true value of this kind of capability is in its business applications.

Today, businesses are bombarded by an enormous, seemingly impenetrable wall of data that comes at them at tremendous volume and speed and in a wide range of structured and unstructured formats. The problem is not whether you have enough data to make intelligent decisions, it’s finding the specific bits of data you need within the data tsunami.

My team in Cisco CHILL are working on a couple of AI-powered chatbot projects that can help solve this problem with a simple conversation.

Creating a post-dashboard world

Today, data is often locked up in obscure dashboards, which only work if the dashboard is well designed and users can find the dashboard they need. Tomorrow, we won’t need dashboards because we’ll simply ask for the information we’re looking for.

We’re working with a large U.S. retailer to monitor PoS systems in over a thousand stores. Today, they have to manage as many as 700 different dashboards and alerts. With conversational AI, a network manager will simply be able to have a conversation:

“Hey data, are all my stores running okay?”

“The POS systems in Milwaukee are all down. Do you want me to investigate?”

“Yes, please.”

“There’s a power outage in the area. The power company expects repairs to be completed by 6:00 PM.”

With this conversation, the intelligent chatbot sifts through all the data from all the stores to identify the scope and location of a problem, then accesses third-party data to identify the cause and expected remedy. While capabilities this sophisticated may still seem like something out of Star Trek, they will soon move from the lab and into production.

By turning a data search into a conversation, anyone can find the information they need in a massive volume of unstructured data, without any need for training. This capability can apply to any company that deals with large amounts of data.

Automating time-consuming or repetitive processes

AI-powered conversations can also happen via email or online applications to perform repetitive or mundane tasks and speed up human-powered operations.

For example, one of the most time consuming tasks in sales very well may be contract renewals—heavy on repetitive processes, light on sexy new features. At Cisco, we employ renewal specialists to work with our largest customers as their service contracts come up for renewal. They review their current contracts to evaluate customer needs and identify services that need to be added or updated. It’s a very labor-intensive process, so often we miss renewal opportunities for smaller accounts.

CHILL is working with Cisco sales and services teams on how to increase renewals rates by capturing the intelligence of our top renewal specialists and making that knowledge available to all our accounts. The automated system contacts the account manager before the contract expires: “I see that one of your accounts is up for a renewal soon. Do you want help in updating the contract?” If the account manager agrees, the AI-powered system conducts the service evaluation, suggests updates, and sends the updated contract to the manager for edits and approval. This can reduce the overall renewal process to about a tenth of the time it normally takes. And it allows the human account managers to spend their time cultivating client relationships, understanding their unmet needs, and maybe even finding opportunities to sell a few sexy new capabilities.

No longer science fiction, intelligent chatbots can give you the business insights and decision-making support you need to guide your organization through a new and uncharted business universe. Kind of like Captain Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard!



Kate O'Keeffe

Senior Director

Customer and Partner Innovation