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Virtual agents: accelerating the pace of AI adoption towards a new normal

Watson Assistant has helped organisations manage spikes in customer and employee demands and answer questions related to the impact of the pandemic using trusted information. Use of Watson Assistant increased 59% between February and May of this year, and organisations in 25 countries and across multiple industries have used it as part of their COVID response.

Moving forward, many of these organisations indicate they are looking at ways to use AI to take on the new challenges they are facing, such as return-to-workplace plans and engaging with customers and employees in the “new normal.” Hospitals and healthcare workers around the world found innovative new use cases for Watson Assistant to help convey health and safety information to patients, frontline workers and the public. As the pandemic continues to evolve, many are exploring further applications for the technology.

Examples of success

Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board, part of The National Health Service Wales, launched CERi, its Welsh and English-speaking virtual agent, using IBM Watson Assistant. As Wales slowly eases out of lockdown, the agent will support patients, healthcare workers and the general public with information on the prevention and management of COVID-19. CERi provides rapid answers in a conversational tone to common questions on topics ranging from how to isolate safely and effectively, to safe food preparation, to protecting yourself and family members. CERi also offers practical advice on managing symptoms like fatigue, dealing with anxiety and uncertainty, and disinfecting your home.

“Using AI and natural language processing capabilities from IBM, CERi has been designed to evolve and learn through use and user feedback. In particular, we have tried to focus on the language and way her dialogue shows empathy, caring and understanding. Welsh people speak from their hearts and making sure CERi shows empathy and understanding is critical to us,” said Dr Phil Webb, Head of Value Based Healthcare at Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board.

The Royal Marsden, a leading cancer centre with hospitals in London and Surrey, England, launched its “Ask Maisie” virtual agent to give employees rapid, consistent HR information relating to the virus and related workplace guidance. As the country emerges from lockdown and as government guidance evolves, Ask Maisie is providing employees with information about how to safely return to the workplace, how to self-isolate and what to do if your child’s school is closed. This enabled the hospital to manage its workforce efficiently while helping to alleviate some of the additional worries key workers may be experiencing at this challenging time.

“The coronavirus pandemic has meant we’ve had to make a lot of changes very quickly to our work across both the clinical and non-clinical areas of The Royal Marsden. As a result, there have been a huge number of HR changes and queries, and it’s been fantastic to work with IBM to create a virtual solution to help the team triage these requests so we can prioritize the critical issues,” said Ellen Mossman, Deputy Director of HR at Royal Marsden.

Public sector growth

Local and national governments have also tapped Watson Assistant to impart information to citizens around the world—including in Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Korea, India, Spain, Philippines and Russia.

In South America, the government of Colombia customised Watson Assistant to create “Cory,” a virtual agent trained to answer 40 unique questions related to COVID-19. Since its launch, Cory has been trained to answer an additional 180 questions about topics including international travel guidance, prevention tactics and government policies. Cory facilitates over 11,000 interactions per month.

Alaska’s shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic produced a flood of unemployment claims for the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The state was down 43,000 jobs in April 2020—a devastating toll in a state with a population of 731,000 people. To help handle the deluge of inquiries, the department pursued a rapid response. In addition to bringing on 100 additional support staff, Alaska quickly launched a Watson Assistant virtual agent on its unemployment insurance web page. In its first 50 days of operation, the virtual assistant held 24,216 conversations with 17,470 unique users.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned traditional ways of working and operating upside down for organisations across many industries around the world. AI-powered virtual agents can be a powerful resource for evolving and adapting to rapidly changing patient and employee demands. As the world continues to make its way through the pandemic one thing is clear, by adjusting quickly and investing in the right technology, organisations can build resiliency and prepare for what the future has in store.

For more information on IBM Watson Assistant, visit

Learn more about AI adoption at the HIMSS & Health 2.0 European Digital Event taking place on 7-11 September 2020. 

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