Accenture Finland’s Konstantin Vdovenko and boost.ai’s Henry Vaage Iversen reveal how the two companies worked together to innovate and develop a game-changing technology for the Finnish government
Important technological breakthroughs often start off as small but bold ideas. Like turning a pocket-sized pane of glass into a powerful personal computer, or stripping out a car’s internal combustion engine and replacing it with a battery. The gap between when these ideas are formed and when they are brought to market is fueled, in no small part, by a spirit of collaboration - between teams, companies and individuals - all working towards a common goal of changing the way we look at the world.
Collaboration was also the fuel that drove the development of one of the world’s first AI-driven Virtual Agent Networks. An innovation project that brought together the expertise of Accenture Finland and the technology of boost.ai to solve a challenge put forth by the Finnish government: create a unified conversational platform powered by artificial intelligence that would make it easier for foreign entrepreneurs to establish businesses in Finland.
Working closely with the Finnish Immigration Service, Tax Administration and Patent and Company Registration Office, teams from Accenture and boost.ai developed, implemented and deployed three virtual agents - one for each government agency - that can intelligently communicate with each other. Visitors to any agency’s website can be transferred between each virtual agent from within a single chat window so as not to break the flow of conversation and deliver a seamless customer experience.
We spoke with Konstantin Vdovenko, Managing Director, Health & Public Service at Accenture Finland and boost.ai’s own CCO and co-founder Henry Vaage Iversen, to learn more about the groundbreaking collaboration.
How was this innovation of an AI network born? Where did the idea originate from?
KONSTANTIN VDOVENKO: The innovation was born thanks to our forward-looking and brave clients who are willing to challenge their current ways of working for the better future of humanity.
The Virtual Agent Network stemmed from the ongoing innovative co-operation with the Finnish Immigration Service (Migri). After creating a design and innovation lab Inland Design, we wanted to think big and find solutions for cross-organizational use to create better citizen experience.
Understanding that organizations are not always able to share data directly, we envisioned a network of intelligent digital services that could work like well-connected people: when they don’t know the answer to the question, they may connect you to somebody who knows it well.
How did Accenture and boost.ai become a team?
KV: Accenture often works as a bridge maker between startups, ecosystem partners and top companies – both globally and locally. We are always looking for advanced capabilities to deliver best outcomes with next level of speed and quality.
Our starting point was to create services that could be scaled up exponentially. As we evaluated several vendors for the needed superior Natural Language Understanding-based true AI, robust multi-language support (including Finnish), and intuitive AI-training, boost.ai not only exceeded our expectations in capabilities, but as a team as well.
I recall a week in 2018, when key developers from Accenture Helsinki and Riga gathered with boost.ai team from Stavanger for the decisive R&D sprints. Together with Migri leads, we enjoyed the first demo of the Virtual Agent Network being brought to life. I think it was the day when we became one team glued by R&D success and new target to bring the AI-network into existence.
The proven concept for connected virtual assistants created the trust to scale up the innovation with the Finnish Tax Administration and the Finnish Patent and Registration Office for the first use case: Starting up Smoothly, which supports immigrants on its way to bring their talents and businesses to Finland.
What were the initial challenges?
HENRY VAAGE IVERSEN: When Accenture approached us with the concept of building a network of virtual agents we looked at it as an exciting opportunity. We already had some experience drawing from our public sector projects in Norway which use one virtual agent as a template across multiple municipalities.
This gave us a good understanding of the scope of such a large project, but the Virtual Agent Network needed to function differently on a fundamental level. We immediately saw the potential for this new use case for our technology and knew that it was a project that we wanted to put our full resources behind.
We first started by working closely with Accenture and key stakeholders from each agency - Immigration, Taxation and Patent and Company Registration - to develop three unique virtual agents that could function and answer questions independently. It was important for us to be able to provide a strong foundation for customer experience outside of the scope of the network otherwise there would be no point in connecting the virtual agents together at all.
Once this was in place, we began to look at the bigger picture. How do we handle the handoff between agencies? What about maintaining data privacy? Our virtual agents are developed using a conversational AI platform that uses proprietary NLU and deep learning algorithms to accurately interpret user intent in any language. This is especially useful when tackling a complex language like Finnish. This made it possible for each virtual agent to understand when it was being asked a question that would be better answered by another agency and offer to transfer the user to its digital colleague.
The experience needed to be as seamless as possible, so our team worked hard to make sure this interaction could take place within a single chat window, regardless of which virtual agent the user was chatting with. While this allowed for a better customer experience, it also meant we could maintain data security by having control over what information the virtual agents could share between each other - a key part of the brief we received from Accenture.
What role did the three government agencies play during development?
HVI: The role of the Finnish government agencies cannot be understated. The Finnish Immigration Service participated in the original lab with Accenture to conceptualize the idea of the Virtual Agent Network and all three agencies were heavily involved in developing content for their own virtual agents, offering feedback and suggestions for how we could improve the product as it was being developed.
At boost.ai, our goal has always been to put the power of automation into the hands of the people who understand their customers and services the best. We purposely designed our solution so that you don’t need a degree in data science to train and maintain a virtual agent. This makes it possible to put existing resources in charge of developing the right ‘voice’ and content for the virtual agent so that it matches customer service guidelines.
In the case of the Virtual Agent Network, it meant that each agency brought its own personality and style to their virtual agents and that the content was up-to-date so that the entrepreneurs on the other side of the chat window could always get the right information.
With us developing the technology, the agencies providing the content and feedback, and Accenture running point on implementation to ensure things ran smoothly across the board, the project was a win-win-win from all sides.
How did boost.ai support Accenture and vice versa to ensure a smooth rollout?
HVI: A big advantage of working with an established firm like Accenture is that they have a wealth of expertise to draw on. Being able to work closely with their experienced team meant that we could avoid some of the challenges that you would typically encounter on a project of this size if we were to tackle it on our own.
Konstantin and his team also made it clear from the start that this was a collaborative process, providing crucial marketing and implementation support when needed and sharing full credit. They let us ‘run with the ball’ on the parts they knew we are strong at, like technological innovation, and gave unrestricted support to bring the Virtual Agent Network to market.
In the end, this spirit of collaboration was a great benefit not just to both companies, but also to the end client, the Finnish government. This partnership meant that we could develop, pilot and launch an innovative technology with ‘real-world’ benefits in under 6 months, solving real problems for real people with AI.
What makes these kinds of co-operative projects so fruitful and what were your key take-aways?
KV: I think it is about three elements: people, capabilities and purpose. And of course, the shared passion to overcome organizational boundaries in search for digitally transparent, proactive, democratic and widely scaling intelligent human services for the use of people.
Our ambitious mission was to create something totally new. Show that AI can independently re/create a digital network to help people discover relevant digital services and make the human-machine interaction meaningful and proactive while ensuring smooth and secure handover between them.
I think this is only the start. We see that such an emerging AI-network is scalable by design and can disrupt the digital world being applicable to all industries and domains. Finland and Nordics jointly can lead the way to scale the implementation for public services ecosystem bridging its silos and helping people to navigate in a digital services reliant world.
Accenture has included this innovation into its own concept and integrated approach, called ACE+ (Applied Customer Engagement). boost.ai has included the Virtual Agent Network to its own product and it is available around the globe to its customers. Obviously, implementations of “AI as API” are not limiting the network to only one AI-vendor and we are open in sharing lessons learned with clients and vendors in joint projects.
I want to credit our client agencies and our exceptional cross Nordic collaboration, as these organizations are able and deserve to be the home of great inventions and the trust of its citizens.