Google Acquires Onward, a Customer Service Chatbot Company

Chatbots have a big role to play in the future of customer service, and Google knows it. Earlier this week, the company acquired Onward, an automated customer service start-up founded just three years ago. Onward’s primary functionality is an automated chat tool for businesses that uses artificial intelligence to communicate with customers and cut down the slow response times associated with IVR and other customer service channels and technologies.

“At Onward, we’re focused on transforming the way people communicate with computers. Back in 2015, we were amazed by the rapid advancements in artificial intelligence—particularly in natural language processing and machine learning—and were convinced there was real opportunity to put those technologies to work. So we started Onward with the mission of allowing computers to participate in natural, human conversations,” the Onward team wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition.

One of the elements that makes the young start-up unique—and appealing to Google—is that in addition to building capabilities for the chatbot to respond to simple questions and requests, Onward has also built processing flows that could help bots tackle more detailed questions through a series of simple follow-up questions. Programming these flows would be relatively simple for users—Onward offers a visual bot builder environment where users can use decision trees to guide bots on how to handle certain issues.

Though it’s not entirely clear specifically how Google plans to leverage Onward’s technology, the company has demonstrated, through a series of moves, that AI-powered customer service is important to its business at this time.

In May, for example, it debuted "Google Duplex," which allows customers to book appointments at businesses through an AI assistant. As Onward joins the Google family, all eyes will be on what’s next in AI for Google. Onward cofounders Rémi Cossart and Pramod Thammaiah, as well as CTO Aaron Podolny, will be joining Google, and time will tell where the technology will go.

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