SAN FRANCISCO -- Innovative mobile apps married to increasingly powerful artificial intelligence (A.I.) are rapidly getting smarter -- making them even more helpful for users.
These kinds of apps, showcased at VentureBeat's two-day MobileBeat conference here this week, are designed to anticipate user needs. Who knew, for example, that you can use your smartphone to simplify the process of getting a green card to enter the United States or to streamline corporate travel?
During a "Startup Showcase" session, Visabot showcased its appropriately-named Green Card app. The program is based on a bot that walks users through a series of simple questions that, when answered, generates a package of documents you can file with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to complete the application process.
"When I came to this country, I needed a visa urgently, but it took a month," said Visibot's co-founder and chief operating officer, Andrey Ziniviev. "We built this bot to help folks like us come here quickly and legally and not have to pay lawyers thousands of dollars." Green Card costs US$149 and Ziniviev said it's already been used by 70,000 people to help get their paperwork in order.
"It takes on average 15 to 20 minutes to get all the way through," he said. "We want to help talent move to this country from overseas."
Travel agent in your pocket
Another company, Mezi made the classic startup pivot after it launched two years ago as a shopping assistant app then switched to travel. Mezi added to its consumer travel assistant app by launching a corporate "Travel-as-a-service" application at MobileBeat. Mezi for Business is designed for travel management companies, corporate and travel agents and now has customers including American Express and several travel agencies. The service includes a travel dashboard for agents to check the status of and manage customer requests.
"We are empowering businesses with travel bots that automate 60% (of the booking process) out of the box," said Mezi CEO Swapnil Shinde.
Data collection and privacy
A number of companies discussed how A.I. has helped them change the way they do business on mobile devices by leveraging new data streams. "Mobile makes it easier to collect data than in the desktop world because we have all the user's location data and all the history," said Stewart Rogers, director of marketing at VentureBeat.
"We don't even necessarily need (personally identifiable information)," he said. "If we know that a segment of our customers go to Starbucks, followed by Target, followed by work, that tells us that segment of Target customers are coffee lovers. If we know another segment take(s) a different journey and somewhere different again on weekends, that's all information we can use for hyper-personalization -- pushing the right product at the right place at the right time on the right device."
But with all that data comes responsibility.
"As marketers, we have to make sure we're using it in the right way, because privacy is incredibly important," said Rogers. "We have to understand regulations and rules and stick by them because we are capturing more data than ever before."
Mobile apps that anticipate
Amazon, and later Netflix, popularized recommendation engines that offer consumer suggestions as to things people might like to purchase based on recent purchases; for example, "People who bought a Schwinn bicycle also bought a Kryptonite lock." Online sellers are using the same idea to suggest what mobile shoppers might like to buy by using A.I. to analyze buying trends.
"I think where A.I. in mobile is most fascinating is its use as what I call an anticipation engine," said Tim Bajarin, who heads the market research firm Creative Strategies. "A.I. and machine learning are helping companies learn more about me, or individual consumers, to deliver personalized services that anticipate what I want."
It's not just ecommerce. "We're starting to get a taste of where this is headed when, for example, I put in my calendar I'm going to meet someone at a certain restaurant at noon and an hour before I leave a map to the restaurant pops up on my mobile device," said Bajarin. "Or another example, I can tell a bot on my phone before I head to the office that I need to research a certain topic. By the time I get there, I've been sent 20 links on the topic and three summaries."
Winning over customers
During a panel discussion on "delivering mobile customer engagement," executives from online vendors and payments company Square, said A.I. is helping them attract and retain customers.
Saumil Mehta, customers lead at Square, said the 2.5 million vendors using its point-of-sale device and services on mobile phones and tablets get more buyers spending more money thanks in part to all the data it collects. He argued that for company's it's important to collect customer data from the start -- even if you won't be using it right away.
"The first thing we decided at Square was that every time a credit card is swiped or tapped we update the customer profile behind the scenes," said Mehta. Later, as the database of customer profiles grows, Square can offer users things like automated loyalty programs. They include, for example, customers who spend $500 and get $50 off and "Win Back" campaigns that automatically contact customers who haven't bought anything in 90 days with special offers.
Nikihil Raghavan, vice president of product for search and machine learning at Etsy, said the online seller of jewelry and other hand-crafted items uses A.I. to help manage billions of search queries and offer personalized services.
"We're using deep learning to figure out what buyers tend to find interesting, and part of that is using recommendation technology to figure out what are the right items to send you," said Raghavan, who was co-founder and CEO of Blackbird, a deep learning startup that Etsy acquired in 2016.
As for mobile, Raghavan said it can be a challenge for online sellers given the more limited screen real estate than desktop and notebook computers offer. "You have to intelligently structure the user experience on mobile, and get creative on the UX side," he said.