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article imageOp-Ed: Alibaba's AI software beats humans at reading comprehension

By Ken Hanly     Jan 15, 2018 in Technology
An AI program by China's Alibaba Holdings based on a deep neural network model has scored higher than humans in a reading comprehension test. As a result, bots may be developed to replace humans employed in customer service positions.
The Alibaba Group
The Alibaba Group Holdings Limited is a Chinese multinational, e-commerce, retail, internet and technology conglomerate founded in 1999. Co-founder Jack Ma is still CEO. Via web portals, Alibaba provides consumer-to-consumer, business-to-consumer, and business-to-business sales. It also provides electronic payment services, shopping search engines and even cloud-centric computing services. It also operates numerous other businesses around the world.
Even though the Alibaba Group is less than two decades old, it has a market cap of $490 billion U.S. It is one of the top most valuable companies in the world. Since 2015 it online sales and profits surpassed the combined that of Walmart, Amazon, and eBay combined. Year on year revenues have been increasing by triple digit percentages.
Jack Ma, CEO, is one of the richest people in China or even Asia with an estimated net worth of $48.3 billion
Alibaba's AI is only slightly superior to humans at reading comprehension.
The AI research arm of Alibaba created a machine learning model that received a higher score on the Stanford Question Answering Datase than humans. The database consists of more than 100,000 questions to test reading comprehension.
In early January, this year the Alibaba AI software machine scored 82.44 on the test while humans scored 82.304.
In other areas, computers and AI have already bested humans, for example in games such as chess. However, until now it seemed that language skills were superior in humans, as machines find languages hard to master. Anyone reading translations of Arabic into English on Twitter or elsewhere, and from other languages as well, will no doubt agree often a knowledgeable human translator would be much superior.
No doubt, the new software will be used to replace customer service jobs now occupied by humans by bots with embedded AI. The myriad call-center employees, often in developing countries, may be out of work soon — assuming the AI bots are cheaper and as effective as human labor.
Si Luo, who is a chief scientist of natural language processing at Alibaba's research noted that questions such as "What causes rain?" can now be answered with a high degree of accuracy by bots. Luo said: “We believe the underlying technology can be gradually applied to numerous applications such as customer service, museum tutorials, and online response to inquiries from patients, freeing up human efforts in an unprecedented way.”
Customer Service Chatbots
Si Luo's team is working closely with Ali Xiaomi a mobile customer service chatbot. Ali Xiaomi can be customized to be used on Alibaba's platforms such as Taobao and Tmall. The new AI bots could answer consumer questions as it did the Stanford questions. The bots would look for relevant answers from prepared documents.
There are limits to what the system will be able to do. If questions do not have clear cut answers, or the questions asked are too vague or ungrammatical the bot may not be able to deal with them.
Soon when you phone a company for information the conversation will go like this: "We are sorry but all our bots are busy right now. We value your call. Please stay on the line until a bot is free to serve you. There are just 12 callers ahead of you." A bot will serve you random popular tunes while you wait.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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