BreakThrough Interview

An Age When Small and Medium-Sized Companies Utilize AI in BusinessSoftBank


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Masato Tatsuta, Manager of Watson Business Promotion Dept., Corporate Business Strategy Headquarters, SoftBank

System image of TalkQA for Pepper
  • SoftBank offers a variety of attractive solutions using IBM Watson

AI is currently making its way into society in various ways, such as seen in the defeat of a top-class professional go player against AI in a game of go, and the start of initiatives in autonomous cars using AI. Of course, the same can be said of the world of business, and one of the things that is attracting much attention in the use of AI is IBM Watson (“Watson”) developed by IBM Corporation.

Watson is the key player that sparked up and accelerated the spread of AI

Watson is provided over the cloud, and it presents answers grounded in reason based on an interpretation of complex questions, conversations, etc. posed to it in natural language by analyzing an extremely vast amount of data. In addition, by gaining new experience, it begins to rapidly improve the accuracy of the answers. Currently, based on the Japanese version of Watson, Softbank has started offering various services. The ease of implementing these services and their affordability may become a powerful ally to small and medium-sized companies in the business arena. Here, we will introduce the latest examples of services using Watson.

Customer service solution and internal inquiry system using Watson

SoftBank, in cooperation with IBM Japan, has been vigorously working to spread the Japanese version of Watson since February 2016. Masato Tatsuta, Manager of the Watson Business Promotion Dept., Corporate Business Strategy Headquarters of SoftBank, expresses his enthusiasm as follows: “We hope to solve challenges faced by customers by offering a variety of services using Watson in cooperation with partner companies. Currently, at SoftBank, we offer a package-type solution in which customers can implement Watson quickly at low cost by concretely narrowing down the purpose of use. By setting the bar for implementation low, I hope even more customers will realize the effects of Watson.” Below, we will introduce the latest examples of such solution services.

First, we will cover customer service solutions. TalkQA for Pepper developed by Xware Corporation was realized by combining Watson with the humanoid robot Pepper of SoftBank Robotics. For example, when customers visit a store or facility, Pepper gives an explanation of products and services or provides information about the facility. When customers ask a question to Pepper, it understands the content of the question using natural language classifier (NLC), which is one of the application programming interface (API) of Watson, and it responds with the optimal answer by speech or from a tablet device, etc. In addition, by combining it with a presentation app for Pepper called PepPre (developed by Xware), Pepper can be used for exhibitions and corporate training because it can give presentations using slides, videos, and speech. This is an optimal solution for users who already own Pepper to use it for even more situations. The implementation costs include initial costs starting from 650,000 yen and actual use starting from a monthly fee of 175,000 yen.

Additionally, OK SKY developed by SOLAIRO, INC. aims to achieve a high-quality customer service on e-commerce websites and various service websites. This is a solution that combines a chatbot using Watson with a manned chat support, and when users of the website ask a question to OK SKY from their PCs or smartphones, it interprets the intention of the question using NLC, which is one of the API of Watson, and the chatbot presents the optimal answer in real-time. Depending on the content, the chatbot can be switched to an operator, so customers can receive a high-quality service that feels natural as if talking with one representative. When implementing OK SKY, you can make a smooth transition to a chatbot, because you can store the learned data necessary in service by starting from a manned chat support. The implementation costs include initial costs starting from one million yen and actual use offered for a monthly fee of 100,000 yen + a metered rate.

Image of OK SKY

The increasingly reasonable price of AI is making it easier to implement

While the offering, implementation, and use of these various services are advancing rapidly right now, AI obviously does not just end there. Moreover, when using a service, thanks in part to its use in a cloud environment, the cost barrier is not that high as stated above; and, therefore, AI is starting to become a powerful ally to small and medium-sized companies in carrying out business in the future. Mr. Tatsuta states his further visions for the future: “AI is like an engine in the car. It can be combined with many kinds of apps, services, and data to realize business reform in various situations. By using AI to streamline conventional operations, people will be able to focus more on creative work. I hope to leverage new technology to actively contribute to a transformation in the work style of customers.”

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