I suppose the first thing to say is rather obvious: I am among the least qualified of my species to comment on the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the near future of our industry. But about six months ago, I decided that there is no way to call a column Reality Check without addressing the biggest elephant in our travel zoo.
We are already starting to read about the use of AI in travel planning. The two largest agencies on the Travel Weekly Power List are already using it. Tripadvisor is using it. The New York Times tested it for all to see. And there were flaws. Definite flaws.
Three weeks ago, I attended a meeting of highly successful agency owners. Without an agenda, someone suggested they talk about AI, and everyone agreed. The most telling comment came from an owner who said, “You know, this is just like the Internet; everyone said it would put us all out of business, and we’re now busier than we’ve ever been.”
It struck me that comparisons with the Internet are off course. The Internet became a way to quickly disseminate misinformation on a massive scale. Anyone can say anything and fools aplenty believe it.
AI is something else entirely. It can totally eliminate massive numbers of jobs in our industry because research, reservations, profiles and entire databases secured on your server can become obsolete. AI can do the work in seconds. Writing and sending an email can be done in moments.
But perfection is a ways off, and that leads to my central theme: What stands out to me most about AI and our industry.
Too many are rushing to judgment. Too many of us are secure in our knowledge armor because we are judging AI by what it can do now when massive improvements in its abilities may be only months or a few years away. That’s the thing: AI improves at a pace that is hard to fathom.
Our clients will expect “smart” personalization, fully automated and immediate customer service, virtual reality to take clients anywhere before they pay, along with voice and facial recognition to make planning more seamless.
For now, and in the short term, we can expect massive growth in three areas of AI development:
- Processes for planning and booking travel will not require human intervention to any great degree; they will be fully automated. Booking flights, hotels, restaurants, etc., will be easy, effortless and largely independent of the need for human touch or intervention.
- AI will be safer; it will cut down on fraud and it will know, at all stages, who is traveling where. Worldwide facial-recognition programs are not that far off.
- The thing we travel planners are best at, personalization, will give way to AI-powered chatbots that can create truly personalized options for clients based on past purchases and travel history as well as more than 2,000 data points currently available for use by companies covering the travel population.
So do we just give up? Absolutely not. AI proponents make a huge mistake by failing to consider that even though the results save money, reduce labor costs and are far more efficient, at some point the machines may run amok. And chatbot reputations may become more difficult to defend.
Let’s talk a bit more about AI soon. I promise I will be writing the entire piece myself.
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