Edwin Van Bommel left a plum job as a McKinsey Partner to turn IPsoft’s artificial intelligence technology into a big business.
After 16 years at consulting firm McKinsey, Edwin Van Bommel felt it was time for a change. A door opened one day when he was on a flight to London from his home town in Amsterdam. There, he sat next to IPsoft’s head of Europe who told him about the development of Amelia, IPsoft’s virtual assistant that was being used in company call centers.
Van Bommel immediately wanted to see Amelia in action. His colleagues showed him the technology and it was even more interesting than he expected. Thus began a dialogue with IPsoft that led to him to joining the New York-based company in January 2016 as its chief cognitive officer. “I have the potential to do transformation at a much larger scale than I could do as a partner at McKinsey,” he said.
While founder and CEO Chetan Dube is responsible for leading IPsoft and developing its long term vision, Van Bommel is tasked with bringing Amelia to market around the world, developing applications that can transform the ways businesses operate across many industries. In this interview, Van Bommel discusses why he thinks Amelia is better than Siri, how she gets smarter and why people shouldn’t be afraid of our digital assistants.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Was there a moment when a light bulb went off that sold you on joining IPsoft?
What sold me on it was the whole humanization element of Amelia. You can actually talk in natural language and get a response that feels warmer than what your PC says. If we really crack this, the adoption rate will be so high. But the other side is training Amelia. It needs to be super easy. I always say my mother needs to be able to train Amelia like she was able to train me, right?
What’s the difference between Amelia and the best known smart assistant, Apple’s Siri?
The difference between a Siri and an Amelia is that you can really have a conversation with Amelia. Siri can put on my music, or can call my wife, but sort of there it stops. And now, with Viv, the Siri on steroids, you can order flowers, but you still cannot open a bank account. Amelia is better in the contextual understanding, and therefore can be more human. To give an example, if you ask Amelia, “Who are the New York Yankees?” she will answer, “It’s a baseball team.” Then you can ask, “Did they have a game last weekend?” And she will say yes. She’ll also probably say the score. But she understands “they,” is still the Yankees. Those are very simple examples. But we classify language so that we not only can handle synonyms, but we also can handle it on a different level.
Amelia’s primary use right now is customer service, but what do you see as future uses for her?
You can teach Amelia all kinds of things. She can be a mortgage broker. She can be a service desk. Now, to do that, she needs to be very effective. She needs to work with all kinds of systems and APIs to do her job. But in the future, Amelia will not even use these anymore, because, in some cases, there will be other bots and she will just talk human language with the bots. That’s the next level. Bots talking to bots.
So not necessarily machine language, but actual conversation?
Yes. That’s, on one hand, scary. On the other hand, it’s much more transparent, because now you actually don’t know what’s all going on in all these system interfaces, because they’re undercover. But, if bots are having conversations, a human actually can see what these bots are discussing. It has a big benefit.
So how human can Amelia get?
We are actually looking at that now. How can we humanize Amelia even further? Should she be able to tell jokes? Should she maybe have a favorite band? We don’t know. For me, the hardest part is: How can we make it as enjoyable as possible, so that people actually say, “Oh, this is the Amelia channel; I will use it”?
What does success look like?
My core goal is that we come up with applications for Amelia where she’s really transformational, and really has impact. And the number-one KPI for me, for my department, is user experience or customer experience
How do you handle the fear that seems to come along with this kind of technology?
I’m certainly a digital optimist. But I truly think that it will change industries. Why would you outsource jobs offshore when you can have a computer running in the U.S. doing the same job for you? First-line support people will be replaced and businesses need to make sure that these people can do other things. In the end it’s better, because we will have more people available to become teachers again and we can free up doctors from mundane tasks. The world can really become better.