IBM has held out the concept of a next- generation, digital assistant for some time. I once hoped that its partnership with Apple would result in a Siri upgrade to Watson that would finally make that poor AI meet expectations. Alas, Siri still sucks, but IBM and Soul Machines just announced they were releasing the IBM Digital Assistant, branded Digital Iris, at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
This could be a game changer for all airports which often don’t provide the information you need when you need it, particularly when you have a tight connection and are likely to miss your connecting fight. For example, on a recent trip I was unable to find my connecting flight initially (it had vanished from the departure board and from the carrier’s web site (American Express Travel, which booked the flight, could only commiserate with me.) Another time, after landing at the Dallas Airport, I ran to my connecting flight at the other side of the complex only to find they’d moved the gate next door to the gate at which I’d originally deplaned. I blew out some stitches from a recent operation and thought I was going to have a heart attack.
In both cases, having an on-demand, truly helpful AI digital assistant that could help me in real time would have been a game changer. Let’s talk about how the emergence of a true AI for travel could be revolutionary, particularly when connected to other technologies airports are deploying.
Digital Iris: The applied IBM Watson Digital Assistant
Siri and OK Google are more speech-to-text and text-to-speech search tools that rely heavily on search engines and the generic web. The IBM Watson AI is vastly more developed. I’ve reviewed trials, mostly in sales roles, where prospects were so convinced the AI was a person, they started flirting with it. The AI has also outperformed people in terms of answer accuracy and speed. This would be incredibly useful if you’re running for a flight and the digital assistant could request a flight be held if there was a mechanical problem and the reason you’re late for the connection is the carrier’s fault.
To this last point, my wife and I were traveling on one of our rare vacations to Florida, only to arrive at our connection one minute after they had closed the doors. We lost our first-class seats and our direct flight because United hadn’t managed the flights well enough (our arrival gate was blocked initially by a luggage cart). Even though we are in our 60s, the woman at the gate told us we should have run faster. It was a while before we flew United again.
A true AI like Watson can address problems like this timely and both answer your questions as needed, and potentially escalate problems rapidly so they can be addressed before you’re stranded. Currently, Digital Iris has been deployed in Terminal B at the Dallas airport and it has managed thousands of conversations in real time successfully.
The information it provides is customized to the traveler and responsive to their questions, increasing satisfaction with the process, the airline and airport brands which often suffer in the minds of travelers when they are stranded and unable to get answers when they need them.
The future of Digital Iris-like technology
While this initial implementation doesn’t retain knowledge of the traveler, future implementations could tie in facial recognition technology already being deployed at airports as an alternative to boarding passes. Once in place, someone would only need to walk up to an information kiosk for it to recognize them, update them on their gate and departure, and recommend places they might like to eat or shop while waiting. In addition, it could notify you of any shopping specials, direct you to the closest airline lounge or rest area, and make suggestions on how to resolve any travel issues more quickly (like missing or lost luggage or rebooking after a flight is cancelled or you miss a connection).
Finally, in the case of an active shooter, or manmade or natural disaster, it could provide customized directions on how to help people evacuate safely and efficiently without putting themselves at greater risk.
The emergence of more advanced AIs in day-to-day use have focused initially on sales problems almost exclusively. But the next generation is moving to general help and support as showcased by the Digital Iris, based on IBM Watson, deployment at the Dallas Airport. This is an ideal use for the most advanced current generation AIs as it fits well with their strengths and addresses a very real problem, particularly for people who only occasionally travel.
Digital Iris showcases a missed part of the potential for current-generation, fully featured AI solutions and how they can improve response times and customer satisfaction at scale for firms and organizations, like the Dallas Airport, that use them.
AI is the future for human machine interfaces and Digital Iris, IBM and Soul Machines, are at the forefront of an AI revolution.
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