The idea of automation fills many with dread. One pictures awkwardly interacting with an emotionless bot, completely void of nuance or semantic understanding.
Described unofficially as "Sage’s resident millennial", Kriti Sharma speaks with a refreshingly non-corporate directness and was brought into the organisation for her expertise in payment apps, bots and artificial intelligence.
Four months into her tenure as director of mobile products at Sage, Sharma is spearheading the creation of Sage’s as yet unnamed bot. The bot will help small business owners and freelancers capture and manage invoices and expenses.
The best way to think of Sage’s bot is something akin to Apple’s Siri. The user interface is very plain, housed on your smart phone screen. The user speaks in clear, natural language and the bot captures and notes it. The bot will also analyse a business’s data and provide KPIs and reminders. “Our bot is going to turn into a personal trainer for your business,” says Sharma.
This breaks into a territory known as ‘deep learning’. Sharma explained this idea on her blog: “For way too long, humans have had to learn to talk like computers. It’s time for the software to learn how to talk to us instead.”
This means that Sage’s bot will react to its user, according to Sharma. “Our bot is not chatty. It understands users’ behaviour.
“If you’re no nonsense and just want to get on with your work, it’ll keep it simple. If you want to interact, it will reciprocate.”
The deep learning element is that the user sets the tone for interaction, not through manually adjusting the software’s user settings – but through how they interact with the bot. The bot, in turn, ‘learns’ through its interactions with the business owner and the business’ data.
And Sage’s bot is very much a bot. Sharma doesn’t believe in disguising a bot as a human. The traditional standard for artificial intelligence is the Turing test. Developed by the Alan Turing in 1950, his test would place an evaluator in a conversation with two unseen partners, one human and one machine. The machine passes the Turing test if the evaluator cannot distinguish between its responses and the other human’s.
This idea is somewhat outdated. “A good bot doesn’t need to pass a Turing test,” argues Sharma. “It needs to pass a beer test.” By this Sharma means, would I have a beer with this bot if it were a real person?
Sharma argues that there is no need any longer to conceal the fact that a bot is a bot. “Interacting with a machine is becoming more acceptable,” says Sharma. “You don’t have to hide the fact that it’s a bot. It’s okay to not pretend to be a human. A good bot is one that introduces itself as a machine and clearly sticks to a pre-defined role.
“Sage’s bot says: ‘I’m here to solve problems with accounting, this is my domain’.”
Sharma was lured by Sage’s offer because she views accounting as an excellent use case for artificial intelligence. “You have to create an expense. The problem we’re solving is quite contained,” she says.
“It’s not solving a philosophical question; the meaning of life and the universe or something like that. That gives an edge to the accounting industry in terms of AI.” Accounting is rife with tasks that are rules based and neatly defined. These templates make Sharma’s task easier, delivering a pre-defined spots that Sage’s bot can fill.
But Sharma’s bot goes further than just doing these tasks: the end goal is to make the task of accounting invisible to small business owners and entrepreneurs. Sage’s bot is meant to be a conduit, explains Sharma. The bot takes in the information and sends it through to the relevant parties.
Sharma also sees Sage’s bot as solving the discord between the more collaborative accounting market fostered by cloud accounting and consumers who “are becoming more restless and lazy, they don’t want to make the extra click”. The bot caters for this restless generation of business owners and start-ups.
Eventually, Sharma sees the bot integrating with other platforms and online messengers. “two and a half billion people that have a messaging app. We’re used to that context now,” Sharma says. “Now platforms like Facebook and Slack, they’re opening themselves for companies like Sage.”
It’s still early days, but Sharma sees potential everywhere for AI. “When I came to Sage four months ago, I looked at the experiences of business owners. It’s not just accounting, it’s any process in the enterprise space.”
About Francois Badenhorst
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