Thursday, February 21, 2013

CEO's Corner: How It All Started

Here at noHold, Inc. the CEO, Diego Ventura, will be writing a monthly blog post about his experiences, knowledge, and expertise in the technology industry. Here is his first post: 

It was circa 1998 and I was managing my previous company, Stefra Corporation which was named after my two kids, Stephany and Francesco. Stefra developed and marketed a video mail and video conferencing solution called Video Control. We had a great contract with Logitech that bundled our software with their golf-ball looking cameras. Business was good, but we were responsible for the first line support on our embedded software and Logitech was selling these cameras like hotcakes. This introduced the question, “How can I automate support?” Since I have always been passionate about Artificial Intelligence (AI), I decided to build an expert system. At first, mine ran in a DOS Window with no Internet capabilities but had a Natural Language Processor (NLP) and Inference Engine (IE). I determined that the market would benefit from this type of solution, so I started looking for venture capital money. I was successful and in September 1999 I incorporated noHold, Inc. I hired an exceptional team who built a Web-based enterprise solution now used by Fortune 500 companies. We were not like any other company though. What made us so different was the coupling of the NLP and IE which enabled users to not only ask questions, but allowed the Artificial Intelligence  to conduct a dialog to best direct them to the most specific solution. 

Back then there were no Virtual Agents to speak of. Ask Jeeves was making progress with their new version of a search engine that had NLP capabilities and Google was in its infancy but gaining market share virally. In 2000, the acquisition of Big Science by eGain for $50M created a lot of momentum for the Virtual Assistant market, that back then did not exist nor really had a specific name. In fact, here is the evolution of terminology as I recall it:
  • ·         Search Engines with NLP (emphasis on search, with NLP as an extra twist)
  • ·         Chat bots (short for Chat Robots.  Able to conduct conversations limited only to a question and an answer)
  • ·         Virtual Agents (still a very popular way to refer to Virtual Assistants, but confusing because the same term is used when referring to a person who works from home in a virtual call center)
  • ·         Virtual Assistants (Gartner’s nomenclature which is now being adopted by the market)
One thing that surprised me throughout the history of this space is that a lot of emphasis has been placed on the look and feel of the Virtual Assistant rather than the Artificial Intelligence functionality behind it. For example, features like the capability of being diagnostic are being overlooked by an avatar based user interface. It is almost as if beauty prevailed over smarts. Maybe a sign of the times?

Diego Ventura, CEO, noHold, Inc.