Webio founder Graham Brierton: ‘People still value human interaction’

17 Aug 2018

Webio founder and CTO Graham Brierton. Image: D Studios Photography

Though people will continue to value human conversation, digital transformation can empower customer interaction, says Webio CTO Graham Brierton.

“Good engineers give you things that work. Great engineers create what you need.” It’s this philosophy that has driven Graham Brierton in his 25 years of designing and building meaningful applications and platforms for large-scale international enterprises such as ABB Alstom, Bank of Ireland, Scottish Hydro and Zurich Insurance.

As founder and CTO of Webio, Brierton has been instrumental in shaping the company’s vision. He is also the driving force behind the engineering and development of Webio’s proprietary platform, Propensity-X, which automates conversations via autonomous chatbots or live agent engagement using AI.

‘Webio is building its own machine-learning capability to identify how likely a conversation is going to end in a desired outcome’

Previous to Webio, Brierton was a consulting technical architect, CTO of Ezhome (which he also co-founded), CTO of VoiceSage and a stage actor.

Webio is a conversational middleware company, whose platform acts as a bridge between enterprise systems, processes and data to enable digital customer conversations over messaging apps and voice interfaces.

On 6 September, Webio will host ConverCon, an event dedicated to conversational interfaces. Experts from Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook as well as Irish companies Intercom, EdgeTier and Each&Other will converge in Microsoft’s new Dublin HQ in Leopardstown to discuss chatbots, voice-based personal assistants, messaging and more.

Tell me about your own role and your responsibilities in driving tech strategy in your organisation?

Tech strategy should always be led by purpose. What will the customer get from this, what benefits will flow and will they pay? It’s my role to listen to customer needs now, assess their needs in the future and address them in the simplest way possible. Technology is as much a cultural philosophy as it is a science. I’m responsible for balancing the drive of the company with the capabilities and needs of the technology team that works with me.

Are you spearheading any major product/IT initiatives you can tell us about?

Right now at Webio, we’re focused on being able to understand and predict the direction of conversations. Humans do it innately and intuitively – we can ‘feel’ how a conversation is going and react accordingly. Machines, on the other hand, tend to react to the last thing said and not the full conversation or indeed lifetime of conversations.

Webio is building its own machine-learning capability to identify how likely a conversation is going to end in a desired outcome. We also develop a range of skills that can be applied to digital conversations to help them reach an effective conclusion. For instance, we have a security skill that can stop certain types of information from being shared in a conversation and we have a profanity skill that stops any kind of profanity being shared in the messaging conversation. These skills and machine-learning propensities use the data in conversations and around the conversation in new and innovative ways.

How big is your team? Do you outsource where possible?

We are a small team of exceptional problem-solvers. To be creative and adaptive, I believe teams should be small, connected to the philosophy of the business and connected to the problem being solved for the end user. This doesn’t lend itself well to outsourcing models.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation and how are you addressing it?

If we take digital transformation as ‘the total and overall societal effect of digitisation’ and look upon interactions as a fundamental of human society and business, then connecting businesses and customers through conversational interfaces is a huge part of that.

People won’t want ‘digital’ for everything, and do put value on human interactions. Yet, even in non-digital interactions and transactions, digital transformation plays a role in the sense of empowering any customer-facing agent. As a ‘conversational middleware’ company digitally enhancing and facilitating all types of conversations, Webio designs and builds the digital transformation element of the interactions and conversations.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

I believe there are three trends changing the world and our industry specifically.

Natural language understanding – where a programme can understand the spoken word. In August 2017, Microsoft announced that its cognitive service was now better than a human being in understanding the spoken word. This of course shouldn’t be confused with understanding the complete meaning of what is being spoken – that is a different challenge entirely. How this problem will be solved is crucial to the world of voice-first interfaces such as Alexa and Google Home.

Image recognition and understanding – where services such as Google Lens can ‘identify and recognise an object’, usually through a phone’s camera but it might also be from a home security system or from a drone. We’ve gone from recognising a simple number on a car’s number plate, to being able to pick out one face in a football stadium crowd. The implications are going to be profound.

Blockchain – not the currency element, but the contractual security elements – will lead to a fundamental shift in data security, ownership and exchange. We are already seeing movement here in the messaging world and no doubt Facebook and Apple will be making further moves here in the next 12 to 18 months.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?

I actually have a radical view on this; it’s something I have been mulling about for a while. The key thing is that, historically, the ownership and management of data is effectively inverted.

By this I mean all of my personal data is distributed, duplicated and managed by the plethora of organisations I have dealt with in life.

We can see the complexity, burden and risk that this places on businesses with the advent of GDPR (although we should have been doing everything GDPR stipulates anyway).

Why can’t I be the owner and controller of my data? Why can’t I choose who it gets shared with, while my version remains the only true version? Why can’t I retract that sharing any time I like?

This puts all the control and responsibility in my hands rather than the organisation; it vastly simplifies things. Yes, the technology doesn’t exist yet but there is something within the blockchain concepts which I believe can make this a reality.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years