Robot Wars: Bots Vs. IVAs

According to the news media, artificial intelligence (AI) is going to take over many business functions. Robots, bots, and intelligent virtual agents (IVAs), are entering the workforce at a rapidly increasing rate, eliminating jobs and changing the dynamics of the workforce.

Here's the funny thing: The same exact things were said more than 35 years ago. It wasn't true then, and it's not true today. AI isn't going to eliminate the need for employees.

It is true that there have been significant innovations in AI particularly in natural language processing (NLP), natural language understanding (NLU), and machine learning, and AI-enabled technologies can improve the work environment and the customer experience.

When it comes to self-service technology, these advancements have brought a lot of positive change in the past few years. Currently, the number-one channel of choice for Boomers, Generation X-ers, and Millennials is self-service. Customers prefer to interact with a self-service solution over talking or chatting with a live agent, as long as the automated solution is good at its job. The challenge is that many of the current interactive voice response (IVR) solutions are not effective because they have not been updated in five years or more and do not take advantage of recent innovations. (A lot of IVR solutions have been in production for more than 10 years, with minimal enhancements.)

This is where bots and IVAs come in. These solutions are intended to automate the handling of questions and tasks where human logic and problem-solving skills are not needed. The new generation of self-service AI-enabled technology can and should dramatically improve the self-service experience in many channels, including voice, website, chat, SMS, email, and a lot more. Emerging self-service solutions are using IVA and bot technology to improve the customer experience.

Despite all of the claims, bots and IVAs are not the same. DMG Consulting defines IVAs as "specialized technology that utilizes AI, machine learning, advanced speech technologies, and free dialogue understanding to simulate live cognitive assistance for voice, text, or digital interactions via a digital persona." IVAs are intended to be self-learning solutions. Their intelligence should continually evolve based on data inputs from each new interaction; the objective is for the acquired knowledge to be assimilated and leveraged in future interactions. Currently, the learning process is human-assisted, known in the industry as attended, but in the future, it is expected to be unattended, which means that the systems will learn without manual intervention.

A bot is different from an IVA in that it is typically dumb and designed to follow explicit rules. DMG defines a bot as "software to process transactions, manipulate data, trigger responses, initiate actions, and communicate with other digital systems to automate the completion of high-volume, repetitive, and non-cognitive tasks." Bots, also known as robotic process automation (RPA), automate activities based on user-defined rules and are frequently developed in drag-and-drop graphical design interfaces. RPA administration environments are generally not complex, enabling them to be maintained by business subject matter experts who are familiar with processes rather than requiring IT staff.

See the figure below for a comparison of bots and IVAs.

An IVA can do everything a bot can do, but there are many business situations where companies do not need the intelligence or cost of IVAs. The key distinction is that bots are being used to automate basic and repetitive single-dimension and, most important, non-cognitive tasks. This is in direct contrast with applications like IVAs, which leverage artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced speech technologies, and free-dialogue understanding to simulate live cognitive assistance for voice, text, or digital interactions via a digital persona. Some IVAs are taking it to the next level by allowing companies to personalize interactions and help agents find answers to their questions. In the future, bots could be AI-enabled, but at this time IVAs and bots co-exist. Both bots and IVAs can make substantial contributions by helping organizations reduce support costs and encourage the use of self-service solutions. DMG recommends that companies include both of these solutions in their plans for 2018.

Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting, is an expert on contact centers, analytics, and back-office technology. She has 30 years of experience helping organizations build contact centers and back-office operating environments and assisting vendors to deliver competitive solutions. She can be reached at