Companies around the world are constantly evaluating how to best reach and/or serve their customers, exploring ways to better connect with customers, while always keeping a keen eye on the resources needed to do so.  Higher education is no different. It too needs to cut through the clutter and create a connection with potential students, and continue to build the relationship even after those students are part of their university environment.

As the global chatbot market continues to expand (according to a report published in February 2021 by Research Dive), many brands including universities are now incorporating chatbots as part of their admissions teams.  While more universities incorporate chatbots as an extension of their workforce, they also often find typical chatbot solutions are inadequate, leaving their users frustrated with an unsatisfactory, impersonal experience. The personal connection becomes lost with chatbots ignoring user inquiries, offering irrelevant or often, one-size-fits-all responses.  Herein lies the challenge — can a chatbot automate human conversation AND be personal?

Today a new generation of chatbots, called cognitive AI assistants, can do just that. Additionally, organizations can launch them in a matter of days vs. months. The incorporation of cognitive intelligence into a chatbot immediately transforms users' experience.  Instead of being forced to follow a fixed interaction path (e.g.,clicking on menu buttons one after another), a user is now interacting with a chatbot that has a more human-like quality than typical chatbots, and that can learn, remember, reason, solve problems and make sound judgements.  How would universities tell a cognitive AI assistant from a typical chatbot? A cognitive AI assistant has three key attributes that universities should look for.

Responsible AI

When universities evaluate a chatbot solution, it is important to verify whether such a chatbot is adequately responsible to complete its assigned tasks, whether it is to help prospective students obtain program information or existing students access course information. A responsible AI assistant can truly help universities help their prospective and existing students 24x7x365.

Below shows two conversations. On the left (a), it is a typical chatbot that can hardly understand how to help its users, while the chatbot on the right (b) is a cognitive AI Assistant that answers a user's question promptly and maintains the conversation context to ensure task completion (in this case continuing the online application process).

The image shows two chatbots, a typical chatbot on the left and a cognitive AI assistant on the right.

Empathetic AI

In addition to evaluating a chatbot's abilities to accomplish tasks, when universities evaluate a chatbot solution, it is also important to verify whether such a chatbot can help their brand build empathetic and deep personal relationships with their prospective and existing students.

Due to a lack of intelligence, a typical chatbot can hardly understand its users, let alone inferring users' characteristics. That's why a typical chatbot often gives a one-size-fits-all, impersonal response regardless of individuals' needs and wants. In contrast, a cognitive AI assistant can read between the lines during a conversation and automatically infer a user's unique characteristics, such as the user's interests and preferences. Discovering a person’s “internal state” from the person's conversational text, a cognitive AI assistant enables universities to deeply understand and better help their students (prospective and existing alike), as well as create deeply personal connections with them in real time.

Below shows how a cognitive AI assistant personalizes its guidance to two different users based on its understanding of the users' different characteristics.

The image shows that a chatbot responds to different users differently. The chatbot proposes an information summary to a user who is impatient while propose to show a comparison for a user who is cautious and indecisive.

Real-Time AI Facilitating Human-Chatbot Collaboration

Since no AI is perfect and also needs improvements, when universities evaluate a chatbot solution, it is important to examine how such a chatbot would work with their human teams, which must monitor and update the chatbot from time to time.  This is also because universities not only want a chatbot to be an extension of their brand, but also a valued member of the team to elevate the overall work environment.

Unlike a typical chatbot that is often unaware of user-chatbot interaction situations or is hard to be improved, a cognitive AI assistant can work collaboratively with its human teammates, informing the teammates about its own status and suggesting ways to improve itself.  Using such information, the human teammates can improve a cognitive AI assistant instantly without interrupting any ongoing conversations. The following example shows how a cognitive AI assistant informs its human teammates about its inference of a user (Mary) and her unanswered question. Given such information, the human teammates can address the unanswered question while using the information to improve the AI immediately.

![The image shows a user profile derived from a conversation and the chat transcript between the user and the chatbot. ](/assets/uploads/screen-shot-2021-05-18-at-3.52.35-pm.png "A \"cheat sheet\" generated by a cognitive AI assistant based on its interaction with a user. Such information can be used to aid human agents in following up interactions with the user.")

Cost and Speed of AI Deployment

No university has unlimited resources and adopting an AI solution, especially a solution as powerful as a cognitive AI assistant, can be very costly. When universities evaluate a chatbot solution, it is also important for them to evaluate the cost of incorporating such an AI assistant into the “team”. There are normally two types of cost involved in implementing such a solution: human resource and time required. Historically, it would take months to set up and deploy such a solution, while new advances in AI enable rapid setup and deployment, in a matter of days. Moreover, it is important to ask what kind of human resource would be required to implement a cognitive AI assistant solution? Will it require AI expertise to set one up? Will there be a need for dedicated IT support?  Who will build the situational experiences into the chatbot?  As most universities have stressed resources, finding a solution that does not require a dedicated IT resource or technical staff is vital for the quick launch of a cognitive AI assistant.

Solutions that have rich, pre-built AI capabilities (e.g., AI templates or AI training tools) will cut the implementation time tremendously.  In turn, they allow universities to start taking advantage of a cognitive AI assistant faster and perform ongoing maintenance with little effort.

A shorter version of this guide was also published by University Business, a media outlet that provides coverage of education news, technology, academics, facilities management, security, financial services, policy, profiles, and opinion.