How humans and AI will collaborate to be at the center of our relationships


Who will own our relationships?

As we shift towards Vendor Relationship Management, taking control of how we deal with the companies that we buy from, it is likely that we will consolidate our relationships towards a single intermediary that adds the most value to us.

Assistants become more valuable as they learn more about us, in building a true ‘knowledge-based’ relationship. This of course requires trust. The main voice assistants so far have been the likes of Siri and Alexa, however major tech companies are definitely not attracting trust these days. As I have written:

Once virtual assistants understand not just us but the context for our questions and interactions they will become increasingly valuable to us. This will create a form of lock-in, where there is a cost to switching from the assistants that know us the best and are thus able to better personalize our experience.

However this requires trust in how that personal knowledge will be used. The winners in the virtual assistant space can only win if they engender sufficient trust for individuals to be happy sharing not just their interactions, but their entire context.

The ultimate potential value is being at the center of all of our commercial relationships, as I told CEO Magazine for an article on Virtual Personal Assistants (VPA):

“The reality is that the value in creating a very functional VPA is going to be greater in providing it for everyone than to a limited audience. “These VPAs become people’s primary interface to everything. You could ask them things like ‘Can you book me that restaurant?’, or ‘Can you buy me that book that I would like for my upcoming trip?’, and they will be able to provide those functions.”

Therein, according to Dawson, lies the reason why the tech giants are in this market.“It will become your primary interface to commerce,” he says. “That is extraordinarily valuable and why each of the major technology companies all have significant play. Arguably this is the future of almost all commerce.”

Now new players are endeavoring to build this incredibly high-value relationships with us using primarily human assistants. Steven Levy writes in Wired about a new service called Yohana intended to take workload off busy mothers.

Here’s the way Yohana works. For $149 a month, subscribers get access to an actual human being working as kind of a personal factotum, relentlessly checking off the joyless tasks (and even some joyful ones) that either eat up hours of the day or don’t get done at all.

The subscription fee is a loss-leader for what will become a thriving ecosystem of services. Think of it as an Amazon marketplace, only with services instead of products. “We’re building our own network of pros, the kind of people who get five stars on Yelp,” she says. “We see ourselves as a one-stop shop.” So the Maggies of Yohana will be able to tap a network of plumbers, electricians, and florists—who will kick back a percentage of the fees to the company.

Yohana and its primary backer Panasonic clearly see the potential of becoming the dominant relationship for their customers, and believe that human assistants, supported by AI, can beat the current AI-only offers.

It is interesting to hark back to Facebook’s early foray into online assistants, M, which was launched in 2015 and shuttered in 2018, having only ever had 2,000 invited users. The intention was to use the human assistants’ responses to its customers to train AI to do the same job, but the venture never succeeded.

In a similar vein, online clothing retailer Stitch Fix employs 5000 human stylists supported by AI (and 150 data scientists) to build powerful, lasting relationships with their customers.

It is a very fair point that humans (supported by AI) are far more likely to be able to build trusting knowledge-based relationships than pure AI apps. Once those relationships are established there is the potential to migrate them to AI-only as capabilities evolve, especially where price is an issue.

It will be very interesting to see how Yohana goes, but I expect there will be other significant players in the human + AI assistant space. The potential rewards are massive.