Nothing has been more pervasive, and fundamentally important, during the pandemic than technology. It is the connective tissue that is keeping society together while we practice social distancing, remote work, and distance learning. Almost every single one of us is using online tools to communicate with one another in real-time every day. Children are meeting with teachers on Zoom, Teams, and Google Meet five days a week. Non-essential workers are completing most, if not all, of their work remotely. Technology is enabling us to bridge those divides, and until we have a vaccine or effective treatment, it’s unlikely to change.
At this point, technology has become a fundamental resource that is needed to interact with the world, and for good reason. The pandemic has made it necessary for us to leverage and integrate technology into our lives as a way to enhance communications. But there is a second element of communication that is equally important in the pandemic: empathy. People feel more vulnerable than ever right now. Rapidly shifting between working at home or working in an office. Being isolated from colleagues and friends for days or even weeks at a time. In April alone, there was a 1,000 percent increase in emotional distress calls, and things haven’t gotten much better in the five months since then. As we come to rely increasingly on technology to keep us together, we need to ask more of those tools. Technology cannot ignore how people feel – their stress levels, pains, and anxieties. It has to become a core component of the treatment of those pains.
Artificial Intelligence is a Foundational Layer in Our Communications Tools
AI plays an important role in all of the tools we use on a daily basis to stay connected during the pandemic. It underpins the operations of Zoom, Slack, Facebook, almost every CRM on the market, dating apps, call routing software, voice intelligence platforms, and much more. Wherever two people connect and communicate during the pandemic, AI is there to support that connection. The way in which AI handles these communications is therefore incredibly important. It needs to go beyond just routing conversations to the next available person or populating a CRM with data from a concluded chat or call. It needs to become a proactive tool in making the right connections at the right time to support everyone involved.
One of the most important ways AI can do this is through emotion recognition and behavioral signal tracking for direct-to-consumer interactions. AI is now able to evaluate and respond to human emotional behavior in real-time, making recommendations, automatically routing people to the right operator and more.
To do this, AI systems capture data from the speaker’s voice, evaluating dozens of factors that can indicate subtle emotional changes. These vocal tics and habits include subtle changes in tone, colloquial uses of certain phrases, speed, and cadence of the voice. When rising stress or anger is detected, the AI system is able to determine how best to handle the situation. This could be routing a caller to a human operator who is ideally suited to deal with not just the quantitative problem they are having, but the emotional response they are eliciting. It can also help support phone operators in real-time – providing data and live advance during the call to help de-escalate a potential confrontation. In a time when more than half of Americans report detrimental mental health and a triple-digit increase in the demand for therapy, it’s more important than ever to have tools in place that support effective communication in customer service and sales settings.
Other Applications of AI Mediation in Communications
AI’s role in communications goes beyond just matching customer service agents and callers. It plays a fundamental role in softening the edge of the current crisis.
Early in the coronavirus outbreak, researchers started leveraging online tools to provide feedback to those who were concerned about their symptoms. These tools used not just traditional symptom checkers, but also used geographic data related to reported cases to identify the likelihood someone might be sick and help them determine the next best actions to take. These same tools are now being leveraged as part of the ongoing effort to implement contact tracing at scale.
Applications are being developed that help to fill gaps in the substantial shortfall in mental health professionals. As demand has soared for mental health services, many are left waiting for weeks or longer for an appointment. AI is being used in apps like Wysa to provide conversational support that is designed to address the sources of stress and reduce them. Other apps like BioBase track stress and help to manage it based on mood, while WoeBot leverages best practices from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to guide users through various exercises designed to reduce stress and improve mental health.
This is equally important in combating the newest pastime of millions as we’re stuck in our homes for days at a time – doom scrolling. The combination of bad news and fake news is making it difficult to even open a browser without being inundated by stress-inducing headlines. Tools like Meedan, News Ship, and Hoaxy are using a variety of tools to score the accuracy and reputation of certain web pages, weigh facts based on reporting on existing, well-known media, and predict the reputation and accuracy of a story. This kind of technology is also being used by social media companies internally to evaluate posts and flag those that may contain false claims. While human moderators are still tasked with a lot of this review process, AI is enabling them to scale their efforts more rapidly.
AI’s Role in Navigating a Cascading Crisis
At the top of everyone’s mind for more than six months has been the global pandemic – one that has now claimed the lives of nearly 200,000 Americans and nearly 1 million people globally. Rightfully so. But there are cascading elements to a crisis like this. As weeks turn into months and we approach the end of 2020, tens of millions of people have been isolated from their friends and family for more than half the year, inundated by bad (and fake) news, and struggling to cope in the ways they would have before.
AI can play an important role in supporting those individuals in their struggles, augmenting conversations, supporting people who are struggling, and combating the results of doom scrolling on mental health. Emotional AI is core to that and will become increasingly important as we learn to live with our new normal.