Don’t be fooled: natural language doesn’t mean speech; and Numéro isn’t referring to speech recognition, when it says it has found a method of “entering a new phase in shopping… an intelligent SMS technology for retailers that can understand unstructured text messages – or plain English – allowing customers to shop from their mobile phones.”
What it is actually claiming is, in some ways, almost more impressive. It’s saying that you can connect to a shopping site, and text your order – and their system will understand it, even if you use text talk abbreviations.
Numéro’s SmartAgént éSMS “uses Natural Language Programming (NLP) which gives the technology the ability to read, understand and intelligently respond to text messages, without human interaction,” said the company’s CEO, Guy Colclough, announcing the new product.
You send a text, and it responds. “If a customer wants to ‘find stores in Manchester that sell DVDs’ or ‘find a hotel room for three nights in Manchester city centre’ then the system will read and understand the text and send back the information. It will also give them a choice of reserving or ordering the product or service they want, and organising a home delivery,” said Colclough.
So far, says Colclough, the use of SMS has been limited to texting very specific messages to betting, ring-tone retrieval or for purchase confirmations only. In a limited number of cases, organisations have introduced a dedicated SMS number to text, but these services require human intervention to respond back to the texter.
“The product, éSMS, has the ability to enact complex business transactions like product purchases, price comparisons, stock availability, or room reservations,” says the company – all from a text and a standard phone.
Will it work? Normally, the response would be sceptical: wait and see. But, says Colclough, Numéro has already successfully deployed the same technology in automated call centres. “We’ve deployed it for use with customer emails received in the customer service centres of some of the UK’s major high street retailers – Tesco, Argos, Lakeland and J.D Williams – and is improving both the speed and quality of email responses by a minimum of 50%,” he said.
It remains to be seen, however, how well it copes with text abbreviations. Phrases like AFAICS (‘as far as I can see’) and IMHO (‘in my humble opinion’) or FOAD (erm, ‘fly off and die’) are in common use amongst online chatters and texters, but not all of them are necessarily appropriate for transactions, and some are minority “words” with esoteric meanings.