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Cisco testing Spark bots as virtual assistants

Cisco collaboration chief Rowan Trollope says Cisco is testing the use of Spark bots to improve the team messaging service. Bots could handle many basic tasks for Spark users.

Rowan Trollope, who heads Cisco's collaboration technology group, said he believes bots will be at the center of the next wave of innovation in collaboration services, such as Cisco Spark and Slack.

Cisco is exploring how people in Spark chat rooms could use Spark bots as virtual assistants that could retrieve information, do scheduling and stand in as a proxy when people cannot attend a meeting. Trollope detailed Cisco's plans in a wide-ranging interview with a small group of reporters at this week's Cisco Live user conference in Las Vegas.

Trollope did not reveal how Cisco planned to use bots in Spark, but he said the programs that simulate human activity could help solve problems associated with collaboration services, including chat room and message overload and wasting time in meetings.

For example, Spark bots could stand in for a person during a meeting, providing answers to fundamental questions. If a more complicated response was needed, then the bot could notify the missing person.

"I have people [who] do this today, essentially," Trollope said. "They'll read my email and respond to things they can respond to, and then things that are important, they'll give to me. I think the computer can do that."

Scheduling through Spark bots

If you got a legit answer from Rowan's virtual assistant, and it's what you needed to know, do you care [it's a bot]?
Rowan Trollopegeneral manager of Cisco's IoT and collaboration technology group

Scheduling is an area ripe for Spark bots. People could ask a bot whether someone was free on a particular day and time. If the answer is yes, then the bot could schedule a meeting.

People would have to get used to talking to bots, but Trollope said he believes they would adjust, given the potential to save time, which is always a plus in business. "If you got a legit answer from Rowan's virtual assistant, and it's what you needed to know, do you care [it's a bot]?" he said.

Bots that simulate the conversation of a human being are called chatterbots or chatbots. Most conversations with those bots are through text messages. Trollope, however, said he believes natural language would also be useful. Such a capability would be possible on a mobile device with voice-recognition services, such as Apple Siri or Google Now.

Artificial intelligence in bots

Developers could use artificial intelligence applications to create more advanced bot-assisted tasks, Trollope said. IBM's cognitive computing platform, Watson, is an example of a cloud-based service that developers use.

This month, Cisco and IBM announced a technology partnership that included Watson. "We partnered up with them, essentially, to be able to provide that capability back to our customers," Trollope said. He declined to say how Cisco would use Watson in collaboration products, but acknowledged "bots [are] the obvious place of interest."

Apple is another partner with technology expected to have a significant effect on Spark. The partnership, announced last year, provides Cisco with direct access to the iPhone's dialer, contacts, camera and video capabilities, all of which are necessary to turn a Spark-enabled device into a pocket-size desk phone.  

"We always wanted to do that, because that's what people want," Trollope said.

Spark-iPhone integration coming this fall

People can take advantage of the Spark-iPhone integration after Apple releases its new mobile operating system, iOS 10, in September. The OS is available in beta. People with iOS 10 will be able to initiate Spark calls using Siri, answer calls on a Cisco desk phone or transfer them to a Cisco video conferencing system.

Trollope would like to make similar capabilities available on Android, but can't, because each phone manufacturer uses a different version of the operating system. As a result, Cisco would have to develop and maintain separate versions of Spark. Trollope is hopeful companies using Android will eventually find a way to reduce the fragmentation of the OS.

Whether on a mobile device or PC, people using Spark can get overwhelmed with chat rooms and messages. In tackling the problem, Cisco is experimenting with software that warns people when they create a duplicate of a chat room, Trollope said.

Email could also play a role one day in reducing message traffic. For example, messages Spark identified as a low priority for a user could be sent to that person's email inbox for checking later. While not promising a similar feature in Spark, Trollope said the option would be a way email and a collaboration service could work together.

"Email should be the address to your house that you give to everyone," he said. Messaging chat rooms, on the other hand, should be for the people you work with all the time.

Cisco to add content management to Spark

This year, Cisco plans to add to Spark content-related features required by companies that need to control documents shared in Spark. One feature is to let companies delete content, and another is a search engine for finding and extracting materials. Companies need the features for compliance, or to satisfy regulators.

"We have a whole bunch of enterprise deals where they say this is a requirement for us, so we're actively working on it," Trollope said.

Letting companies archive everything in Spark is another feature that's in the works. Trollope, however, did not know when archiving would be available.

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