Catherine Lian, Managing Director, IBM Malaysia
It proves without question that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the customer service industry as organizations around the world look for real-time information access to their customers. AI is transforming the way companies interact with people – both internally and externally. It’s time to rethink how business works.
A recent IBM survey revealed that firms that are still exploring AI, regardless of the country, are evenly split – 48% plan to use AI for specific project-based work and 46% plan to deploy AI across the business. Of those companies currently deploying AI, 40% are developing proof of concepts for specific AI-based or AI- assisted projects and 40% are using pre-built AI applications, for example, chatbots.
Forward-thinking organizations are using AI to quickly access insights from data and automate everything from contact centres to marketing campaigns to HR processes, embedding it directly into customer and employee touchpoints. Care agents are often the first point of contact for customers but with the rising call volumes, more complex requests, customers expect a digital-first experience 24/7 on their preferred channels. It’s increasingly becoming difficult for the care agents to meet these evolving expectations on their own.
AI-powered virtual agents help unlock customer data across interfaces—phone, online chat, etc.—while preserving customer privacy. Using that data, AI helps build, train, and deploy conversational tactics seamlessly into any application, device, or channel the customer chooses. By working with a virtual assistant, care agents are better able to deliver exceptional customer service.
We have seen this year due to the pandemic, both government and businesses have been flooded with citizens’ information requests. Providing the right information is essential to emerging smarter. IBM has technology like Watson Assistant which gives many constituents, customers and employees the knowledge they need across the existing digital or phone channels. Our goal is to continue helping organizations cope with the high volume of inquiries today and communicate changes as regions, businesses, and facilities reopen to ensure these organizations can work safely and work smart. Watson Assistant leverages trusted information sources to understand and respond to common questions, and that helps the government and businesses in many constituents to respond better to citizens during this period.
Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a “turning point” for governments, industries, and businesses. In business, disruption can create opportunities for companies to emerge, grow, and even leapfrog the competition. Hybrid cloud and AI are two dominant forces driving digital transformation, the basis for competitive advantage in the 21st century. These technology platforms will determine how quickly you can pivot to new market opportunities, how well you serve your clients, how much you can scale, and how fast you can respond to a crisis like the one we’re facing today.
Unlocking data across interfaces is key because digitalization has put customers in the driver’s seat. Studies have shown that millennials and many others prefer self-service options like FAQs and online chats instead of calling for help. With these tools, they can get the information they need at their leisure.
Transforming the customer experience in the public service sector
In Malaysia, IBM is working closely with both public and private sectors to infuse AI and Cloud in healthcare, banking, manufacturing, and public services to name a few. IBM has been helping clients in Malaysia by offering them IBM’s technology, services, and expertise that will enable them to unlock the combined value of hybrid cloud, AI, and other technology platforms.
Building excellent customer service AI experience for customers is not easy. Humans like to digress, have ambiguous questions, unclear communication, and have expectations of fast and quick answers to their problems. Chatbots also won’t address all customer issues, so customers must understand how to build a seamless customer service AI experience of self-service automation with human agents. And organizations are left to their own devices to figure out how to create these experiences. But, why? Shouldn’t we meet our customers where they are at?
Take for example, the public service sector. The use of technology like AI, cloud computing, blockchain, and IoT in the public service sector can relieve public sector servants of tedious, repetitive tasks, save hundreds of work hours, and improve the customer experience for the rakyat. AI technology evaluates responses faster than a person can and enables public servants to work on more critical tasks and increase operational efficiencies.
Currently, IBM Malaysia is working with several clients in the public service sector. We feel honoured that the City Council of Penang Island (MBPP) has recently announced the continuation of its public-private collaboration with us in accelerating Penang smart city initiatives and enhancing State Government service delivery to the public as well as to the business sectors. Under this collaboration, IBM will continue to provide advisory, technical expertise, and consultation around four key technologies namely Cloud Computing, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, and Internet of Things (IoT), that are related to MBPP’s smart city implementation.
IBM journey with MBPP started in 2018 where IBM and its business partner Sophic Automation undertook a project with the MBPP to set up an Intelligence Operation Center to address governance, mobility, social engagement, economy, and environment. By leveraging the Penang Intelligent Operation Command Center (IOC), MBPP managed to get real-time data on governance issues such as illegal parking, illegal dumping, abandoned objects, and others.
To date, IBM has delivered solutions to tackle traffic congestion, mitigate flash floods, improve preparedness and response time to incidents and provide city data to executives and operational decision-makers to make timely decisions.
IBM will continue to offer its technology, services, and expertise for the development and deployment of cloud infrastructure to support MBPP’s ongoing smart city initiatives. IBM will also continue to advise MBPP on planning, developing and deploying AI solutions that can help improve MBPP’s operational efficiencies and innovations in how work and processes are executed in order to improve MBPP’s service delivery to provide a better quality of services to the public.
Challenges in AI adoption
AI has captured the imaginations of many people. For some, AI promises to solve significant and long-standing problems. For others, it presents a threat. For others still, the symbiosis between artificial intelligence and human beings is the next step in the evolution of our species. But virtually all agree that artificial intelligence will have a lasting impact on our lives. Therefore, the public services sector needs to make a strategic investment in understanding how to maximize AI’s benefits and use it to improve the public sector services as a whole.
Some remain unaware of the opportunities AI presents, and how they can realize the possibilities of this growing field – a lack of understanding that is increasingly likely to be a significant disadvantage. Questions remain about information privacy and cybersecurity, AI systems’ trustworthiness and reliability, and the role of these systems in operational and organizational transformation. Other issues to address include the prevention of unwanted bias in AI as well as the use of AI to counteract human bias. Perhaps the most complex question to deal with is what AI’s effects will be on employment, and the jobs that AI is likely to both create and eliminate.
Effective AI tools require vast quantities of clean, organized, comprehensive data, and that’s a problem for many agencies in the public sector. Much of the data is either unstructured or locked away in bureaucratic silos that prevent groups from accessing the information they need. Combine that with legal obstacles to information sharing and a shortage of tech expertise, and building worthwhile AI becomes a steep uphill battle in the public service sector. Before the public service sector can reap the benefits of AI, it should seriously consider unintended consequences and staff’ apprehension about adopting AI.
While an AI-as-a-service product like IBM’s won’t address all these underlying challenges, it could help agencies overcome some architectural and infrastructure barriers to rolling out the tech. Perfection isn’t going to happen. We need to learn from doing incremental steps. That will allow us to gain experience and scale by having some small successes. IBM Malaysia will continue to have technology dialogues with many government agencies in the public service sectors to help them in their digital transformation journey.
AI can change public service sector delivery for better Malaysia
Artificial intelligence is more than a technology. It is a road to transformation. In the coming years, AI will become more routine in the public sector. In the next 18 to 24 months, IBM expects business adoption of AI to explode to 80% or even 90%. This is a smart move for businesses and public sector going forward, given the increasingly high risk of crises and unexpected events—from disease and foodborne illness to severe weather, geopolitical transformation, and international trade-policy changes.
Although there will be challenges and detractors, AI has the potential to make data more understandable and easier to use, help citizens navigate public sector services, allow agencies to respond to threats and crises more thoroughly, and improve agencies’ overall effectiveness. Armed with data and advanced AI and natural language processing capabilities, organisations will be better able to unlock enterprise potential and long-term growth in uncertain market conditions.
In Malaysia, we do see increase in public sector interest in AI and it has picked up in recent years, and many government officials are starting to ask the same questions business executives were asking two or three years ago. Governments and large NGOs are starting to invest in AI, spending budget and time on pilot programs for various AI applications and discussions with people in the field on the future implications of the technology.
For IBM, we believe that technology like AI will continue to augment human job, not replace them. This is where the public and private sectors can play a part in building an ecosystem that can drive the workforce’s long-term success. As we operate under the new norm, now is the turning point at which artificial intelligence forever changed how the world works, revolutionizing the way we perceive, think, reason, learn and make decisions.
Additionally, AI has the potential to help address many of Malaysia’s pervasive challenges as one of the developing economies in the region, and advance our safety, health and well-being. More immediately though not less consequentially, AI can change the way public sector deliver their services to the local communities with great potential to transform the public service sector. The AI field is advancing rapidly when Malaysia is looking for new ways to achieve its digital transformation effort and IR 4.0 mission, and AI will change the rules of what is possible.