SK Telecom continues AI push with Persona investment

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A week after ploughing $100 million into OpenAI rival Anthropic, SK Telecom has invested in another promising AI company.

Persona AI is a Korean AI contact centre (AICC) specialist that has developed its own natural language processing engine, which it offers via subscription to businesses that want to provide automated customer service.

It offers AICC solutions both in Korea and abroad, and SKT was keen to point out that Persona is currently undertaking pilot projects in the highly-demanding financial services sector, with KB Financial Group and Hanwha General Insurance.

SKT was not so keen to divulge how much it has ploughed into Persona, or the size of its stake, only that its investment makes it Persona’s third-largest shareholder.

Aside from being cheaper to run than its human equivalent, availability is the big advantage that AICC offers. It can operate around the clock and callers aren’t faced with the soul-destroying prospect of waiting on hold for an agent.

The downside of course is that machines are still catching up to humans when it comes to voice recognition and interpretation. Nonetheless, digital assistants like Siri and Alexa have proved that when done well, people are content to use them.

Similarly to Apple and Amazon, SKT has developed its own speech recognition tech, called Nugu. It plans to combine Nugu with Persona’s natural language processing technology, and use it as the basis for a joint AICC business that offers a contact centre-as-a-service (CCaaS) to SMEs.

It could prove to be a lucrative move.

Citing figures from Allied Market Research, SKT said Korea’s AICC market will grow by 23.7% per year on average throughout the rest of the decade, and will be worth KRW454.6 billion ($340 million) by 2030. The telco also pointed to a separate forecast from Research and Markets, which reckons the global AICC market will be valued at $36.1 billion by 2025.

In addition to contact centres, SKT and Persona also plan to expand into new verticals, like voice recognition kiosks and voice-activated robots.

“Amid the rapid growth of the AICC market, we got a great opportunity to work with excellent partners like Persona AI,” said Lee Gyu-sik, head of SKT’s AI Contact business. “We plan to lead the AICC market and expand the ecosystem so that voice AI can be used not only in contact centres but also in various industrial areas.”

For now, SKT’s investment in Persona seems to be a separate initiative taking place in parallel with its involvement in the recently-launched Global Telco AI Alliance. Last week, SKT invested $100 million in Anthropic, which offers a chatbot called Claude which claims to be more ethically aware than other systems like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, for example.

With help from Anthropic, the industry group plans to develop a multilingual AI platform that will underpin various generative AI use cases that are specific to telcos, including customer service.

While there appears to be minimal overlap between what SKT is doing with Persona and its efforts with the Telco AI Alliance, it will be interesting to track the evolution of these twin developments to see whether the lines between the two become any more or less blurred.


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