Mobile phone with a chat bot app
I think there's a fantastic access to talent [in Ontario]. A lot of great universities and great companies - both small and large - are churning out great employees.

Toronto-based start-ups Massively and Wysdom are using AI-enhanced chatbots to connect brands with their customers

Have you ever had a conversation with a machine? Chances are the next time you reach out to customer service, an artificially intelligent chat-bot will be there to help. Several Toronto-based entrepreneurs are behind this transformation of customer service, including Wysdom and Massively. The two companies have both grown from start-ups at MaRS to working with international brands to deliver AI-enhanced customer service.

Getting wise with Wysdom

Wysdom was founded five years ago to connect brands and their customers through AI. "The concept is that as more customers demand digital customer care, you can't scale that solely with humans," explains Jeff Brunet, President and Founder of Wysdom. "But with AI in the mix you can truly deliver value, providing the right answer by using context."

In essence, AI-enhanced chat-bots actually understand what you're saying. "They understand language rather than keywords," Brunet says. "It's at the intersection of natural language processing and big data." The bot can also learn from past experiences, drawing on millions of previous customer interactions to develop smarter answers.

So far, the product has been picked up by a variety of telecom providers including Rogers, Shaw and Virgin Mobile. "We have 40 million customers using the product today," says Brunet. "It's running in English, French and Spanish, while Portuguese, Mandarin, German and Italian are in the lab stage."

Brunet views his company's technology as enhancing rather than replacing existing customer service. "We haven't seen a negative impact on jobs, but it's changing the dynamic of customer service jobs," he explains. "The bot can handle the most common questions, leaving the representative to focus on the exceptions, making their job less repetitive."

Massively: bots made easier

Massively was initially founded as an interactive storytelling platform, when the founder, Russ Ward came to a realization. "The insight for us was in the area of "wouldn't it be cool if you could talk to fictional characters?"" The company is now using chat-bots to help bring brands to life in customer service interactions.

"Where we focus, and where I think we're different, is we try to bring a level of emotional intelligence or empathy," says Ward. For humans, communicating with a bot could be frustrating. Massively believes it can reduce this frustration with bots that understand human emotion and respond accordingly. "You show empathy when it's required. We're connecting the dots between artificial intelligence and emotional intelligence."

Ward thinks this kind of emotional artificial intelligence will help humanize the bots. "I do think you're going to start to see companies like ours put an emphasis on the softer side of AI around personality, tone and empathy," while cautioning that bots must be transparent about what they are. "We want to humanize the experience without tricking people into thinking they're talking to a human."

Massively has already partnered with a variety of brands including Adidas, CBS, and Mondelez. They also produced a bilingual bot for Elections Ontario to help provide voting information.

"It's an innovation hub"

Massively and Wysdom are just two of the hundreds of AI start-ups in Toronto. "It's an innovation hub," says Ward. He credits incubators and accelerators with helping to create an environment where start-ups can thrive. "We reached out to MaRS about a year into our journey, they helped us commercialize and understand how we should be selling our product."

Brunet agrees, "The number of accelerators and incubators is incredible. We're at MaRS, where I also mentor at the Founder's Institute. It's a great place for first-time entrepreneurs to learn from people who have founded multiple businesses." He believes outstanding talent is what makes Toronto an incredible place for tech companies to grow, "I think there's fantastic access to talent. A lot of great universities and companies – both small and large – are churning out great employees"

"You need the next generation coming out of school with two things," says Brunet. "One is the research acumen to push new algorithms forward. The other is the practical hands on experience and being able to come into the business and provide value beyond being a researcher."

"It's an exciting field to be in," Ward says, "there's still so much to learn and discover."

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