Staples is ready to test a technology that lets companies order office supplies by voice. Developers and e-commerce experts at the company worked with International Business Machine’s Watson artificial intelligence system to build the Easy System, which Staples expects to test with customers before the end of the year.
The retailer joins a range of large companies, including Facebook, Automatic Data Processing, and Humana, using AI to build intelligent software agents that understand natural language and field multifaceted requests. Some see bots as the next user interface beyond swiping and clicking. Staples, for example, wants to let business customers order supplies that it may not carry, offering to find and deliver such products, says Faisal Masud, executive vice president of global e-commerce at the office supply retailer.
The Easy System users initiate by pressing a red “easy” button is designed to learn with each interaction, says Masud. The cognitive computing scheme behind Watson lets Staples’ algorithms learn the habits of individual customers. Eventually, for example, the system will understand that a customer’s reference to “blue pens” means an 18-pack of Pentel ballpoints.
Staples uses application programming interfaces to connect its inventory and ordering systems to Watson, via IBM cloud technology. The system checks contracts and business processes set up for each customer, to ensure an order meets appropriate approvals, he says.
If an order exceeds a spending threshold, for example, it could be routed by text or email to a supervisor for an override. If there’s an issue the Easy System can’t resolve, it will automatically invoke a live link to a human customer service agent.
“We want to become the right-hand for the office administrator,” says Masud.
By Kim S Nash for www.blogs.wsj.com