Christian Hildebrand: Identifying intent is often difficult and messy. How do you leverage natural language processing to increase understanding and prevent having to say the phrase Alexa users know too well –“Sorry, I don’t know that?”
Jan Neumann: One advantage we have is that we do not offer a general assistant for everything. Our voice service is focused on entertainment, on home control, and on customer service. In each of these domains, we have a pretty good understanding of the entities involved and of possible actions. Customer service is a little bit more complex. It involves longer sentences and chats in contrast to the rather short voice commands in entertainment, which are mostly quite to the point. Our service is far less complex because the more services you involve, the harder it gets to identify the intent.
Christian Hildebrand: Another challenge must be managing your rich portfolio of constantly changing content, with new shows coming up all the time. How do you manage and handle this portfolio? How are you able to produce well-tailored, timely recommendations for customers?
Jan Neumann: It is important to have strong metadata generation and management. This means that you must be able to automatically detect who is in a program, what they are talking about in a new show or video, which viewer segments might be interested, etc. It is about identifying content on a deeper level and having rich descriptions of what can be expected, like which emotions are involved or which music is playing. We fill in the blanks of what hasn´t been provided, to enable a richer interaction pattern.
Christian Hildebrand: Which lessons have you learned from taking the voice remote to the market? Do you see anything that applies to other industries interested in getting into voice-controlled interfaces?
Jan Neumann: With entertainment in particular, you have a screen and you want to use it. So the experience is not only about voice – it needs to be unified and combined, with text and talk together. One challenge is how to use the screen on top of voice. You can use voice to get a list of funny comedies, but instead of having to command “next page, next page” or “second on the right side,” it makes sense to allow navigation on screen. You need to combine the strengths of both native interfaces.
Christian Hildebrand: Now let’s talk more generally about how AI and your analytics focus have changed the inner workings of Comcast. How has the transition from a “system administration culture” to one that is focused on continuous delivery of a better customer experience changed the organization?
Jan Neumann: The biggest change was putting the customer first. Building everything around customers and their satisfaction changes the focus, the type of projects, and the entire approach to business. It is extremely motivating to see the impact we are making with that switch to technology. Instead of having to make assumptions about what the customers might like, we get this information directly from our technologies. We can learn so much faster, and this is really exciting.
Christian Hildebrand: Ironically, a few years ago, Comcast was criticized for a lack of customer orientation. Now you seem to be changing the game by leveraging AI to provide a better customer experience. This is quite impressive.
Jan Neumann: Thank you. It’s been a companywide effort that includes a lot more than technology and software, and it’s super exciting to see how customers have responded. We know we still have a lot more to do, but as a technologist and an AI scientist, I’ve been particularly excited to apply this technology to make our customers’ experiences easy and frictionless.
Christian Hildebrand: Yet you are competing with Netflix and other global tech companies that are trying to eat your market share. Isn´t this extremely challenging, or even frightening?
Jan Neumann: As an engineer, I would say it´s much more motivating. Having so many companies doing so many exciting things really inspires me and my team to try new things and constantly stay ahead of the curve. Engineers are pretty competitive people as a group, so when we see someone else doing something cool, it provides both inspiration and motivation.
Christian Hildebrand: In the end, do you have a competitive advantage if you have the best algorithms?
Jan Neumann: Well, algorithms are the tool for achieving something. It comes down to the question of who can learn the fastest from the customers and be the most agile in meeting their needs. Fundamentally it is the same business for everybody, but there are certain ways to accelerate the feedback cycle and be more efficient via technology.
Christian Hildebrand: Finally, let´s a have a look into the interface of the future. What’s the next big thing that will better connect and serve your customers? Brain interfaces, or more sensors in people’s homes?
Jan Neumann: Whatever the interface is, it all comes down to being able to actively understand and anticipate the needs of the customers, and then being able to serve them, fulfill their needs, and address their intentions. Voice is a natural way of communicating, and for now it is a very good medium. We also use nonverbal cues, and maybe they can play a role in the future. But in the end, the medium is irrelevant. Whatever allows us to capture needs effectively and with as little friction as possible is what we will end up with.
Christian Hildebrand: Wow, what closing words! Thank you for your time, Jan, and for taking us with you into the new tech universe at Comcast!