Olga Heuser, DialogShift © DialogShift

18 May 2020

"By using AI-based speech technology, teams can be relieved and constant accessibility can be guaranteed."

The Berlin-based company DialogShift reacted quickly in the current coronavirus situation and developed a chatbot for Covid-19 crisis communication. Where the chat offers are used, how they are accepted and when we can expect the use of service robots, CEO Olga Heuser reported to #ki_berlin in an interview.


Dear Ms Heuser, thank you very much for the interview. With your company DialogShift you have recently developed a chatbot solution for the corona crisis communication of Vivantes Klinika. How did the cooperation come about and what has been the response so far?

The coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed Europe with an incredible force. At the beginning of March, great uncertainty spread among the population and the hotlines of health authorities, doctors' surgeries and clinics were hopelessly overloaded. Virtual helpers such as chatbots or speech assistants have great potential here, as they can automatically answer recurring questions and provide rapid assistance.

Together with the Munich-based company PRIMO MEDICO we have developed a chatbot for Covid-19 crisis communication and made it available free of charge to the Berlin-based municipal clinic group Vivantes (#gemeinsamgegencorona). Vivantes had just set up three test centres in Berlin and had a great need to relieve their own service hotlines and to save patients and citizens long waiting times (or to prevent them coming to the clinics with symptoms because they did not reach anyone via the hotline).

In mid-March the chatbot was rolled out on the Vivantes Klinika website. In the first weeks it answered about 1000 questions a day - multilingual (German, English, Turkish, Russian and Arabic) and around the clock. Artificial intelligence, in combina­tion with the possibility to ask questions via chat, answers the most relevant ques­tions about the virus, helps patients to correctly assess their own symptoms and gives specific recommendations for action. The aim was not to develop a Covid-19 chatbot that can answer all questions to do with the virus, but to specifically automate those questions which come up on the hotlines.

The result after the first few weeks of use: many people need support in assessing symptoms and ask whether and where they can be tested. However, many also ask about the restrictions, for example in maternity clinics, or about current visiting regu­lations.

The application certainly had to be developed very quickly in accordance with the current situation. How complex was the development of the technology and how did you proceed?

We run a conversational AI platform which works like a Lego construction kit and is basically industry agnostic. Because it's all about communication and it doesn't matter whether it's a hotel guest, a patient, or someone interested in a product on the website. We set up and implemented the application at Vivantes within a short time. The challenge was to provide the virtual assistant with the right content and to "feed" it with training data. After Go-Live we continually adapted it and added new questions - depending on updates from the Robert Koch Institute and Vivantes Klinika.

For example, we noticed within the first few days that very many questions were asked about restrictions in the maternity clinics. This is because expectant parents did not find this information directly on the website. We have supplemented and retrained this subject area accordingly. 

To what extent can artificial intelligence and technology offer relief and sup­port in times of crisis? What other possibilities do you see for the future?

In times of crisis, when uncertainty is great and service teams in companies, organi­zations or crisis teams are overloaded because they have to deal with numerous requests by email or telephone, virtual helpers such as chatbots or speech assistants have great potential. About 60-80 per cent of these inquiries are the same. By using AI-based speech technology, such teams can be relieved and at the same time con­stant availability can be guaranteed. The intelligent dialogue systems answer ques­tions immediately and thus enable a service, such as the assessment of symptoms or making appointments, around the clock and in several languages. People can access information or services faster and do not have to wait in queues or wait sev­eral days for e-mails.

So-called hybrid systems work very well, in which the first contact is made via a vir­tual assistant who hands over to a member of staff if he or she cannot help.

In the coming years, virtual assistants will be used not only in service teams (also for internal organisational communication such as in HR or IT helpdesk areas), but also in the field of telemedicine, where a chatbot takes over the initial contact, answers the most important questions, qualifies patients and passes them on to the appropri­ate doctor.

I see further future potential in the field of robotics. Talking robots, which are avail­able in clinics to patients or doctors, or travellers at the airport or in hotels. This will certainly take some time, but in five to ten years we will increasingly encounter ser­vice robots.

Your chatbot solution is used in other diverse areas besides the health sector. In your experience, in which sectors is the integration of chatbots a particular advantage?

Among other things, we have developed a sector-specific solution for the hotel and tourism industry. Today's guests expect digital self-service, quick answers and easy access to information and services when travelling. They don't want to search, they don't want to wait and sometimes they don't want to make a phone call or speak to a member of staff personally. The application in the hotel industry is doubly interesting, because on the one hand this technology helps to improve guest service and relieve the reception desk by automating communication and reservation processes. On the other hand it helps hotels to improve the conversion of their own website and thus generate more direct bookings via their own reservation system. In this way they do not have to pay commission to the booking portals and have the guest in direct con­tact with their hotel.

Conversational AI technology is also helping the hotel and tourism industry in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. At present and in the coming months guests and travellers are and will be uncertain and have many questions. For hotels and travel companies, good communication and contactless service is now more important than ever. The technology helps hotels and destinations to make guest communication and guest service more efficient and contactless.

In addition, increasing use is being made of virtual assistants in the areas of market­ing, e-commerce, customer care and personnel recruiting: they offer quick access to information and services at various touchpoints (websites, apps, web interfaces, messaging platforms or via QR codes in buildings). As we are used to chat commu­nication in our daily life - the younger the target group, the more relevant this com­munication channel is, this form of communication is very well received by custom­ers. If the company wants to recruit employees or sell services or additional benefits, a chatbot on the website, for example, helps to answer questions, make reservations or arrange appointments.

How is your technology received in general? Can you observe a development in the handling and use of chatbots?

The technology is very well received by the users. This is because we have become used to chat communication in the meantime. We use WhatsApp for private commu­nication, Slack or Teams at work, etc. The conversational interface is also very intui­tive to use, because you can simply use your own language when you are looking for something or have a request. Also, communication with chatbots is no problem for users. If they know that they are talking to a chatbot, they usually formulate their request in simple words and are forgiving if the chatbot has no answer and suggests forwarding the question to a person. There is one aspect of dealing with chatbots that I personally find very interesting: users love it when chatbots respond to small talk, for example "Thank you" - "Who are you?", and they appreciate human qualities like humour.

Our experience with customers in the B2B sector is: even if they doubt at the begin­ning whether a chatbot solution will be accepted by the users, as soon as the system is live they are overwhelmed by the many requests that run across it. Speech assis­tants are exciting, and so are applications in the fields of robotics and IoT. We are also planning a robot project with a Swiss hotel.

How do you see the situation regarding the development of artificial intelli­gence in Berlin? Is there enough room for innovations?

Berlin is a fantastic city to start a technology company. This is due to the good fund­ing opportunities, which we have also taken advantage of. But it also has to do with the international environment and innovative vibe in the city. The many meetups, communities and networks and the creative spirit of the city offer an ideal breeding ground for an innovative project. In Germany, AI funding has been steadily expanded in recent years. This is good and also important so that we don't lose touch. I would like to see less bureaucracy and better access to venture capital for start-ups.