April 14, 2024

Virtual Assistants take flight

Stuart Forster talks with Alex Tange of ICM Hub about the growing use of Artificial Intelligence onboard...

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is increasingly part of everyday life. Chatbots on websites, virtual assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Siri, and self-driving cars all utilise AI to make decisions. As connectivity improves, AI seems set to become integral to passenger experiences too.

According to research published by the accounting firm PwC, AI has the potential to enhance productivity and benefit customers while contributing $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030. 

Accenture lists improved end-to-end efficiency,the ability to make intelligent offerings and superior customer service among the benefits of AI.

Alex Tange, the CEO of New York-based company ICM Hub, is at the heart of this trend. He says: “In short, we say we are building conversational AI platform for airlines that help passengers pre-flight, in-flight and post-flight. The idea is to enable contactless travel. The crew call button, for example, really is outdated because it doesn’t help the cabin crew to be more effective. The call comes with zero information so crew don’t know if it is a life-and-death situation or somebody simply asking for an extra pillow.” 

Enabling passengers

“Through AI technology we can enable a system that gives passengers additional information when they request something onboard. Perhaps they might request movie information through the inflight entertainment system. They could say something like: ‘I want to watch something that recently came out’ or ‘I want something with a specific actor’ and those choices just launch, they don’t have to sift through the content. This is especially helpful as the content choice grows,” adds Tange.

“Maybe the passenger wants to explore the menu and order something. If it’s a domestic flight and a payment transaction is involved, that could be done in the chat; the cabin crew would get a notification of the order, and they would fulfil it. This way the cabin crew optimise their trips onboard,” he adds, suggesting that airlines, cabin crew and passengers are all winners.  

AI will also bring additional sales opportunities for airlines, he predicts: “They are now able to get more products and more ancillary offerings in front of passengers at the right time. The passenger experience is changing so they get instant attention; it’s like they have a personal, virtual assistant and can get their attention at any time. They don’t have to wave and be lucky that a flight attendant sees them.”

Hosted locally

Development of the newly- launched product took two years. Hosting the AI algorithms locally on a cabin server makes them accessible without the need of internet connectivity.

“The passenger types questions in natural language, that gets pinged to the server where the Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithms are located, then translated and passed to the back-end system for a response,” he adds. 

Typing natural language on a PED maximises and even enhances the solution’s capabilities, he explains: “Through natural language we can understand the context around what the passenger wants. As more people chat with the system, the smarter it gets. If they were just pushing buttons there would be less opportunity to collect this natural language data. And it’s only the natural language data that can improve the AI.”

When aircraft dock, chat transcripts can be downloaded and analysed. Then the system can be trained and new content or responses uploaded to the system’s server.

This kind of virtual assistant can be made accessible on both personal electronic devices (PEDs) and seatback displays. It is available via Thales, and was first showcased at the Aircraft Interiors Expo. It could be live onboard by mid-2023.

“The system is all white labelled, so passengers wouldn’t see our company’s name, the system would appear with the airline’s brand, feel and colours. The passengers see some interactive content, click in and see a chat window opens…It might mention their name, welcome them personally and ask: How can we help you?” says Tange.

ICM Hub’s focus is aviation but it could be a logical step to employ travel-related use cases on other modes of transport. Tange predicts that as in-flight connectivity improves AI applications will become more mainstream and five years from now a cloud-based solution will be used during journeys.