Getting Real

Tinkering away at North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, two linguists from N.C. State University unveiled earlier this week the fruits of their two-year labor: complex technology that enables computers to chat with customers online. Start-up LiveWire Logic will market and sell the technology. To be sure, many vendors offer online chatting, whereby customers chat with a virtual customer-service agent, as part of their Web self-service products. But LiveWire Logic President and CEO Bill Warner, argues his technology, called RealDialog, is superior to others because it leverages computational linguistics rather than keyword searches. "This product represents the next generation of automated agents and is a significant milestone for the Web-based self-service industry," he says. Computational linguistics examines every word in a chat session, as well as how it's being used. The result is a more accurate and customer-satisfying experience, says Liz Shaver, vice president of development at LiveWire Logic. She contends that RealDialog produces adequate answers to 80 percent of questions, whereas most competing products handle only 20 percent of questions well. Here's how it works: A customer may write, 'I want to buy a new computer,' in an online chat session. Rival technology will identify 'buy' and 'computer,' and then list a multitude of options, says Shaver. RealDialog, on the other hand, understands the uncertainty of the word 'new,' and thus will ask follow-on questions and drill down into the query before offering up more specialized options. Despite misspellings and incorrect grammar, RealDialog determines the parts of speech within the sentence. LiveWire Logic plans to sell two versions of the product, RealDialog Express and RealDialog Enterprise, through its direct sales force. Pricing starts at around $75,000 for the entry-level RealDialog Express package. Targeted industries include pharmaceutical, financial, high-tech and consumer goods. At least one analyst is already singing RealDialog's praises. According to Timothy Hickernell, senior program director for electronic service at Meta Group, a virtual agent's ability to conduct dialog with the user, determine needs and serve up appropriate responses just like a real person is critical. "Automated agent technology is emerging as the successor to both keyword and natural language search interfaces," he said, in a statement.
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