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Slack CEO describes 'Holy Grail' of virtual assistants

Clint Boulton | Oct. 18, 2016
Stewart Butterfield wants to build a super bot that retrieves and correlates information from any enterprise application to find employees answers to sophisticated questions.

Butterfield's self-described Holy Grail goes both broader and deeper than such scenarios. He says Slack’s goal is to create an application that draws from ERP, marketing, sales, business intelligence and other enterprise systems to answer even more complex queries, such as, "What was our revenue on the date that we signed the term sheets for the last three rounds of funding?"

Imagine trying to answer that question. You might scour your email or document-management systems, using such search terms as "term sheet," and pull up a handful of emails or files. Once you find the dates you might go to separate financial reporting tool to look up the revenue information. Such a process could take you as much as 45 minutes.

Now imagine a tool -- a bot network operating as one if you will -- that could find the information in disparate apps, cross-reference it and generate the correct answer in seconds. Butterfield estimates that such a system would result in productivity gains of anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent.

“That is the knowledge worker equivalent of giving a ditch digger a backhoe instead of a shovel," Butterfield says. "I would love it if we were successful building something like that," Butterfield says.

Today, it remains an optimistic view. While the “term sheet” question is basic enough for a human to understand computer programs are still easily stumped by syntax and grammatical ambiguity, despite hearty gains in natural language processing and machine learning aside.

Indeed, today’s bots -- in Slack and elsewhere -- are a bit narrow-minded. They operate in tightly defined domains and rely on specific syntax from the employee issuing the query. Learning to speak each bot's special language will grow tired pretty quickly.

And Butterfield knows this full well, "I say it's the Holy Grail because it’s much easier said than done."

There’s no Slacking against these competitors

Adam Preset, a Gartner analyst who tracks collaboration platforms, says that adding such cognitive support would be valuable in a market where incumbents such as Microsoft and IBM are still trying to figure out how to use artificial intelligence, natural language processing to present users information.

Preset says Slack could eventually train bots to recognize when conversations are going on to too long without a resolution in sight and recommend that the team members conduct a face-to-face or virtual meeting – and then it would schedule it for them. "Slack has a position as an interface that makes sense if messaging is the way you want to interact with the bots," Preset says.

Slack, which has accrued its 3 million users largely through viral growth across teams within companies, has managed to elude the questions about competitors, largely because it has remained above the enterprise fray. While some progressive CIOs and CTOs have embraced the software, risk mitigation-minded IT leaders have stayed away. That’s about to change.

 

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