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Spotlight: The AI answer to your broadband problems

In this month's issue of Spotlight Magazine, we explore the huge benefits that AI can bring to broadband customer support, for both providers and consumers alike, with SamKnows' CEO Alex Salter delivering his vision of how AI could transform the experience.

If you’re wondering how AI could impact the broadband business, read on.

We are presently experiencing higher than average call volumes. You are currently number 25 in the queue.

Beating the queues

How many customers put the phone down at this point? How many listen to hold music for 45 minutes before finally getting through, their tempers more frayed than when they started the call?

What if AI could solve the issue instantly, having accessed the customer’s broadband performance data and diagnosed the problem before they even picked up the phone?

AI has huge potential to transform broadband technical support, turning it from a script-driven conversation to a data-driven AI resolution that takes a fraction of the customer’s time.

Here, we explore the huge benefits that AI can bring to broadband customer support, for both providers and consumers alike, with SamKnows CEO Alex Salter delivering his vision of how AI could transform the experience.

We’ll also delve into some of the potential risks, with the expert help of Richard Windsor, founder of research company Radio Free Mobile, who writes a daily newsletter that covers the developments in the AI industry.

If you’re wondering how AI could impact the broadband business, read on.

The AI uprising

There’s no doubt that AI has become the technology of 2023. ChatGPT has practically become a household name, generative art services are delivering images of unbelievable quality, and AI is being rapidly integrated into everything from search engines to operating systems to everyday apps.

It might feel like AI has come out of nowhere to dominate the tech industry in 2023, but Richard Windsor says the key breakthrough in generative AI happened several years ago. “The most important innovation was that made by Google in 2017, which was the discovery of the transformer neural network architecture,” he said.

“The main difference it made was, instead of a neural network translating word by word, it allowed the neural network to consider the position of words in the sentence; it allowed the neural network to consider the whole sentence and also the context within which certain words were being used. And what that meant was a substantial improvement to the quality of translation, and that – in my opinion – is the genesis of GPT-based systems and generative AI.”

SamKnows’ data might soon be enhanced by AI

There are other factors that have supercharged the development of AI over the past year. “What has happened more recently is the advent of new silicon from Google that’s more capable, more silicon from Nvidia that’s much more capable, a ton of money from Microsoft, and a ton of data.”

All of these have combined to create “the phenomenon that most people know as ChatGPT,” said Windsor.

The most important AI innovation was the discovery of the transformer neural network

Putting AI to work

As the vast majority of people will have seen by now, ChatGPT and its contemporaries are capable of truly humanlike dialogue. And it’s not only the ability to converse in a way that’s difficult to tell apart from a human that is extraordinary, but the AI’s ability to converse ‘in character’. For example, ChatGPT can be told to write sonnets like Shakespeare, or write speeches in the style of Martin Luther King, or explain something like it’s talking to a seven-year-old – and it can do a convincing job of each.

That degree of sophistication and stylistic flexibility has naturally led to businesses – SamKnows among them – exploring how ChatGPT or its like could work for them. “We started to look at ChatGPT as soon as it was released and, as a technology company, we’re very interested in it,” said Alex Salter.

At the time, the company was on the lookout for a technical writer, and it began experimenting with feeding information to the AI to see what it could deliver. “What we found is that it was very good at taking the information that we’d give it and structuring it in a way that a technical writer would for a first draft,” said Alex.

ChatGPT was an instant phenomenon

“You still need to edit it, you still need to go through it, you still need to look for imperfections in the writing or information that’s presented as a fact that’s actually incorrect. But we realised very quickly that this is something that could have a profound impact on the business.”

We realised very quickly this is something that could have a profound impact on the business

Providing support

But it’s not technical writing where Alex thinks AI will come into its own, but in providing customer support. “So much has been written about AI and how powerful it is, and the impact that it can have on almost anything; but for AI to be powerful, it needs data,” said Alex.

“One of the issues with internet performance is that, until SamKnows, there hasn’t been a way of effectively measuring everything that could be causing problems with people’s internet connections. As we integrate AI, we see our role as one of collecting as much data as we can to make the AI as powerful as possible.”

“The role of SamKnows is to measure internet performance, and we’re always looking for insights because that’s what people really want from us,” Alex added. “AI gives us an opportunity to have another way of looking at data and then generating insights. We think the way that we can integrate that into our products is very straightforward. We can use it to help an individual at home who might be having a problem with their internet connection to identify quickly – looking at all the data that we collect – what that problem might be.”

It isn’t only the end consumers that this blend of SamKnows data and AI could help, but the human support teams, too. The majority of customer care teams currently follow scripts, hoping to eventually find a solution that resolves
a customer’s problem. “The opportunity that we have with AI is not to replace any of those people, but certainly to make those calls much faster,” said Alex.

Generative AI fundamentally improves an artificial agent’s ability to understand language

“If you imagine a situation where you call up your ISP, because you have an issue with your connection or your home Wi-Fi; during the course of that call using our data and the AI interpreting that data, the care agent could come to a conclusion very quickly indeed,” said Alex.

Richard Windsor believes the AI assistants could well become the frontline of broadband support. “I think there’s huge scope for generative AI systems to enhance customer support – the reason being that people don’t like being stuck in a queue,” he said.

“The problem with these [current generation] online chat bots is they’re so stupid that they never seem to know the answer to the problem that you have now. What generative AI and the advances that we’ve seen in the past six months do is they fundamentally improve an artificial agent’s ability to understand language. What that means in practice is, if I ask it a question, it’s going to know what I want. If the answer to that question is contained somewhere in its dataset, it will be able to give me the answer and do so in a conversational way. So, in that regard I think it does represent a significant step forward.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle the AI support assistants will have to overcome is consumers’ inbuilt frustration with those dumb, incapable chat bots that Richard just mentioned. Will customers be twice shy if presented with the option to have their broadband problems solved by an AI assistant? “I think that’s definitely an issue,” said Richard. “But I think when they actually try it, most people will find that it’s considerably better than the old one.”

There will inevitably be knotty problems that an AI assistant cannot handle, and that’s where human support will come to the fore – although the tricky part may be convincing the AI to pass on the customer.

AI could answer basic questions

“When the AI comes across a problem that it can’t solve, it would push it up to a human [support engineer] – and that means that the human would spend more time solving more complex and, I presume, interesting problems, which could actually make their life easier,” said Richard.

“The caveat is how would the AI know when to push a problem up to a human? After all, they [AI assistants] don’t know what they don’t know, so they wouldn’t necessarily know ‘that’s out of my expertise, better get the human to do it.”

When they actually try it, most people will find that it’s considerably better than the old chat bots

The AI challenges

AI’s rapid rise has naturally raised concerns along the way. One big fear from both consumers and businesses is that personal data entered into AI systems might leak or be used to train future AI models, but Alex Salter is confident that risk can be managed. “I don’t think that AI on its own amplifies that risk,” he said. “Obviously, when you’re collecting a lot of data as we do, you must have a significant number of controls to ensure that the data that you’re collecting is protected and secure, and that it’s only being used for the purpose for which it’s being collected.”

By offering AI assistance to support staff or field engineers, “we’re not making the data available to anyone other than those who would have access to the data anyway,” said Alex. “We’re just making their lives faster and easier.”

There’s another big problem with AI, which Alex touched upon earlier – its tendency to make stuff up. Not only does AI often generate these so- called “hallucinations”, it does so with conviction, asserting with supreme confidence that something it has invented is fact. That could be a big issue in a situation where AI is dealing directly with customers. So can it be fixed?

“This is the $64,000 question,” said Richard Windsor. “If you solve that question, you’re basically well on your way to fixing the artificial general intelligence problem, and the super intelligence, and then the robots might actually come over the hill!”

AI hallucinations are a cross- industry problem

In other AI systems, such as self-driving vehicles, Richard Windsor says hallucinations are regarded as a “catastrophic failure” – for example, if a car starts accelerating wildly because it’s misread a speed limit sign. “I don’t know how it will be fixed. My view currently is that it won’t be until we find a new way of creating artificial intelligence systems that do not rely on the statistical neural networks that professor [Geoffrey] Hinton and his team created in the 1970s and the 1980s... that this problem will fundamentally be addressed.”

If the bots are good enough... from a customer’s view, it’s easier to talk to a bot than it is to a human

There are, of course, ethical conundrums to be resolved, too. If AI is delivering frontline technical support, for example, do broadband providers have to inform customers that they’re dealing with an AI assistant, not a human operative? On text chat it might not be at all obvious, and with advances in speech synthesis, it might not be apparent on telephone support lines, either.

“If you’re paying for a service, specifically to speak to a human, and they palm you off with some artificial intelligence, that’s somewhat underhand,” said Richard Windsor. “You could say it’s unethical.”

However, Richard believes many of these ethical concerns may well fade in time, especially as the technology continues to improve. “If the bots are good enough to solve a problem, then in many ways from a customer’s point of view, it’s easier to talk to a bot than it is to a human, if a problem is relatively simple and straightforward.

“I think part of the problem historically with talking to machines has been that fundamentally they’re too stupid to understand the way that people talk to them. For example, if you fail to give Alexa the words in the right order, often the voice assistant will fail to give you what you want, or even play the right [music] track.

Human support could be augmented by AI

“Generative AI offers the possibility to make that better, which may then reduce people’s resistance to speak to bots, especially if it means you don’t have to wait in a queue!”

Listen now

AI expert Richard Windsor, Founder of Radio Free Mobile, joins us to discuss the rapid evolution of the technology over the past year and how it could transform customer service. Alex Salter, Founder and CEO of SamKnows, discusses how AI could enhance SamKnows’ portfolio of products, both for consumers and its ISP partners.

Spotlight: The AI answer to your broadband problems