Conversica CEO discusses future of artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence is all around us, whether it's to recommend movies you might like or weed out unsavory videos. Smaller companies such as Conversica are joining the likes of Google and Facebook in pursuing AI.

Conversica sells digital assistants to businesses ranging from car dealerships to real estate companies. They work just as an entry-level sales or marketing person would; customers usually don't know they're interacting with software, or a bot, when responding to a sales pitch or seeking help.

Conversica CEO Alex Terry spoke recently with The Associated Press about the future of AI and its impact on jobs. Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How long did it take to get to a point where people couldn't tell they are conversing with a bot?

A: We have been doing this for seven years, and it's a function not only of time but also the amount of training data. At this point we've had over 215 million messages go through our AI platform, and those messages help us train the system to respond like a person.

Q: How does natural language processing work?

A: Software reads messages that are coming in and understands what the person is saying. Then we figure out what we should do for that particular customer. If you think about Siri or Alexa, those are examples where the computer is listening to a spoken sentence or paragraph and figures out what someone means. Like if I say "what's the weather out today?" you have to understand what's the weather and then some kind of location.

Q: What happens to the people who would have handled these responses?

A: Typically we see our customers hire more people, not less. It's about a 6 to 1 ratio of customers that hire more staff vs. those who use the efficiencies from AI to reduce the size of their team.

Q: What are the biggest challenges right now?

A: On the technical side, it's making sure these experiences are really seamless and genuinely helpful. Our systems are getting smarter all the time. But that isn't our biggest challenge. Our biggest challenge is getting the word out there. People tend to be hesitant to try something that sounds almost like science fiction.

Q: Do you think stuff like Siri and Alexa are helping with this?

A: I think it really is helping. For example, Facebook trying to find fake news, that's a great example of using really powerful technology, pattern matching. I think people using Alexa or Siri or even recognizing that Netflix is using pattern matching to recommend a new movie you might like, it actually makes your life easier and better. People are becoming less fearful of the technology as they see actual benefits in their day-to-day lives.