AI + humans = future of customer service: BT's Dr Nicola J. Millard

Robert Woolliams

April 25, 2016

5 Min Read

AIBusiness recently interviewed one of the leading business figures in Artificial Intelligence, Dr Nicola J. Millard, Group Head of Customer Insight & Futures at BT.

Nicola will be speaking at The AI Summit in London on 5 May, where she will discuss BT's "SuperAgent 2020" and explore how AI and humans could change the face of customer service together, raising a number of key questions, opportunities and challenges for the customer service sector.  

AIBusiness caught up with Nicola to find out her views on AI’s impact on business overall, as well as her plans for BT's customer service specifically, looking ahead to her keynote at The AI Summit.

How do you believe AI will impact business overall and in what ways?

AI as a standalone technology is not that useful – it is only as good as the data that feeds it and the deep learning algorithms that power it. There are a number of things that are helping it become useful to businesses – things like machine vision, internet of things, clouds of clouds, big data are all grist to AI’s mill.  If AI can be applied to manage things that we don’t want to – like managing our email inbox – we can then free employees up to work on things that add the value of a human brain. Things like creativity, empathy, negotiation, innovation, intuition and emotion are not (at the moment) things that technology can cope with very well. A good human brain plus AI can superpower businesses.

Where are we at the moment in terms of ready-to-implement technology versus wishful thinking?

AI has been around and implementable for a very long time – my first AI project in BT was 1990 – what has changed are the deep learning capabilities. I would say that the biggest inhibitor at the moment is the lack of accessible, quality data for it to use effectively.

 What do you think are the main challenges in adopting AI technologies, from machine learning through to image recognition, in business?

AI, like any other technology, has to pass the 3‘U’s test. Is it Useful to me? Is it Usable? Who else is Using it? No technology will be adopted unless it helps its users to get to their goals more effectively, is easy to use and is adopted by like-minded others. Past projects I’ve been involved with have often fallen foul of these ‘U’s. If a contact centre agent doesn’t trust that the technology will help them, results in them taking longer to solve customers’ issues, makes them feel devalued and isn’t used by their managers and colleagues, it probably won’t be adopted. This is more a culture change issue than a technological issue. 

Where and how are AI technologies featuring in the development of "SuperAgent" 2020 so far?

I’m going to be talking about a 25 year evolution of AI in contact centres but the basic premise both then and now is to make things easier for both customers and agents. The technology that is changing things radically in customer service is self-service over digital channels. Customers are behaving more autonomously, they are super-charged by their smart phones, become shopper swots and feel more in control if they can easily do things themselves. This is changing the function of human customer service, in that it tends to take out pretty much all the easy, transactional stuff and leaves the complex and emotive stuff. That’s why we called them “SuperAgents” because they have to take on fairly difficult things on the customers’ behalf that they can’t (or won’t) do themselves.

What is the future of the AI-Human partnership in customer service, particularly in relation to "SuperAgent 2020"?

There are two principal ways in which AI can be used for customer service. The first AI-human partnership (and the most discussed one) is AI-customer.  The most visible example of this is the chatbot but we’ve also been using it in the background to help structure unstructured data spaces like customer forums. This is about using AI to help the customer get to their goal by handholding them through a process or personalising things according to channel, preferences, profile, location etc. If this fails, then it needs to seamlessly triage the customer though to an expert “SuperAgent”. This is where the AI-Agent partnership kicks in. AI can help the agent to stick the fork into the complex spaghetti of internal process whilst they use their knowledge, ingenuity and skills to help the customer get to their goal.

Technologies like Robotic Process Automation (RPA) will also take a lot of the double keying into and out of multiple databases away from agents, so they can concentrate more on the customer experience.

Which other industries do you believe will be the pioneers in broadly adopting AI technologies?

The obvious one is transport – with autonomous vehicles being powered by a combination of AI, machine vision, location detection and smart sensors. However, manufacturing is inevitably also at the cutting edge as smart production lines enable both robots and people to work safely and effectively together. Other industries that are pioneers are security (fraud detection & crime prevention), supply chain (combined with IoT) and medicine (intelligent diagnostics).

At The AI Summit, Dr Nicola J. Millard will be delivering her keynote: "SuperAgent 2020": How AI+ Humans could change the face of customer service.

The AI Summit is the world’s first event dedicated to Artificial Intelligence for the business world. For more information, and to join us on 5 May at the Four Seasons Hotel, London, visit

For the latest news and conversations about AI in business, follow us on Twitter @Business_AI and LinkedIn – AIBusiness

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