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Telefónica calls for machines to become more human

Chema Alonso Telefonica ODF 2018

At Ovum’s Digital Futures event Telefónica’s Chief Digital Officer talked about the importance of making our interactions with technology more intuitive and natural.

Chema Alonso pictured) is an expert in cognitive intelligence, which in the tech context seems to be all about making computers think and act in a way that is more ‘human’. He heads up the team within Telefónica that is dedicated to artificial intelligence and its commercial use. His keynote at the event was entitled ‘How AI is Changing the Customer Experience and Telefónica’s Business’.

“Data is good,” opened Alonso, before adding “It’s time for computers to learn the human way of doing things.” The point of these two statements is that, while we’re in a digital era, we’re not so good at making use of all the data we’re constantly generating and accumulating. He danced around various considerations such as security but soon got to the core of his talk: AI and what Telefónica is doing with it.

Telefónica launched a platform/service called Aura at MWC 2017 that is designed to repurpose all the clever AI and cognitive intelligence stuff it’s doing internally into a something it can offer third parties. Right now this mainly means Telefónica’s Spanish operator Movistar, but the plan seems to be for anyone to use it. You can see a video explaining the point of Aura below.

Alonso refers to all this stuff as the ‘4th platform’, in reference to its internal role in unifying how data is handled within Telefónica, across systems and geographies. But on top of being some kind of middleware it seems to be all about using AI to make the user interface with technology more intuitive in all scenarios.

In a subsequent panel session Orange VP of Digital Innovation said “AI is the new UI,” which is designed to be short and memorable but is only partially true. In practice this AI is increasingly manifested through the voice UI, as first introduced to the mass market when Apple launched Siri and now commonplace thanks to voice-driven smart speakers.

Where AI comes in is in improving the voice UI. This doesn’t so much mean using data to anticipate your needs like some kind of creepy digital stalker, but using computing power to enable natural language processing, machine learning and context awareness to make voice interactions with machines at least as easy and productive as those with people. Some would argue this is a low bar, but it’s where we need to start nonetheless.

The main illustration Alonso, who used his keynote largely to big-up his employer, has for how great Aura is, was Movistar Home, which is positioned as an augmentation of the kind of Alexa-driven smart home experience we currently have. It ultimately seems to come down to an improved voice UI and, perhaps, a more extensively connected home.

In the introductory presentation Ovum’s Richard Mahony warned of the dangers of AI concentrating power in too many hands. To illustrate this point he flagged up China’s plans to introduce ‘social credits’ – a system that tracks individuals constantly and gives or takes away social credit depending on how closely their behaviour conforms to the will of the Communist Party. The AI genie is out of the bottle and it will doubtlessly confer many benefits, but in the wrong hands it will enable and concentrate control on an unprecedented scale and so should be treated with profound caution.

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