AI vs Covid-19: Chris Ezekiel on AI to flatten the curve, ‘Creative Virtual Live’ and in-person interactions

We thank Chris Ezekiel from Creative Virtual for taking part in our AI vs Covid-19 Q&A and sharing several insightful and positive reflections, including:

  1. How Creative Virtual turned the remote work challenge into an opportunity to learn more about each employee.
  2. The difference that AI has made in combating Covid-19 in contrast with the 1918 influenza pandemic.
  3. How technology may impact our need for in-person and tactile interactions.

How has the pandemic affected your community?

I travelled to Australia on 1st March for a business trip. I was there for just under two weeks, visiting Sydney and Melbourne. There was concern about the virus as I left the UK, but we were still in the containment phase and nobody really knew how things would unfold over the next two weeks. I used some of the time on my long journey to the land down under to write my monthly column for the Wharf Life newspaper, the local newspaper where Creative Virtual’s headquarters are located. Published in the 11 March issue, my column was about human touch and the future impact technology might have on the need for in-person and tactile interactions. Now as I walk around an empty and locked-down Canary Wharf, this edition of the free newspaper remains in the plastic stands – the last issue published before the newspaper was temporarily suspended. It’s as if the irony of this human touch column has been frozen in time.

Navigating Creative Virtual through the pandemic will have its challenges for me as the business owner, but this is insignificant when compared to the life and death struggles going on every second throughout our communities. I’m fortunate to have such a fantastic team who have built strong relationships with our customers and partners, and this is what will get us through this. I recognise the importance of staying connected through these difficult times and also making sure we take time to relieve stress and have a little fun – smiling and laughing is some of the best therapy. As soon as the lockdown started in the UK, I put in place ‘Creative Virtual Live’ whereby volunteers (well, there might be some arm twisting!) within the company spend around 30 minutes each workday presenting a live show to the rest of the company. Everyone has a talent/hobby and it’s been great to learn more about each other. So far, we’ve had sessions on fitness, yoga, cooking, wine tasting, duck feeding, coding, juggling, a farm tour, an introduction to the game Go, martial arts, cello and piano recitals and even a talk on WW I. It’s been a great way for our work community to stay connected and learn more about each other.

What challenges are your company and your customers currently facing, and how are you working to overcome them?

The disruption to our customers varies depending on their industry, as you would expect. Our team are ensuring we’re there to help as they rush to update virtual agent content quickly. A majority of our customers have seen a massive increase in their chatbot traffic, and some are proactively directing customers to use their virtual agent to self-serve rather than make a call to overwhelmed contact centres.

Laura, one of our Knowledgebase Engineers, wrote a blog series about the work she’s been doing to help some of our long-standing financial customers during this time – Part 1 and Part 2. We’ve also shared on our blog some stats showing the massive spike in virtual agent traffic starting towards the end of February.

As a company, we’ve seen the uncertainty cause prospects to delay their procurement process in some cases. However, we’re ensuring we have a sound and flexible financial plan in place to navigate through this. The plan is also designed for us to bounce back strongly once the world economies start to re-open.

Has your company deployed, internally or for your customers, Covid-19-specific AI-powered solutions?

During the COVID-19 crisis we have seen a steep increase in requests from existing and prospective customers. Our existing customer base is moving swiftly to deal with volume spikes across their businesses (be it banking, telecom, hospitality, etc.). We are seeing the agility of our orchestration suite becoming paramount in this time – allowing us to act rapidly on content to help reduce volumes to live channels.

We are also receiving increased interest from prospects around specific support for COVID-19 self-checker bots, business crisis relief, benefits questions, etc. Our system is well-suited to standing up a number of similar bots in a single platform, giving us the option of very rapid deployments and a lower cost barrier to entry. Off the back of these COVID bots, we are now seeing customers immediately look at the impact the bot could have on their service desks or customer-facing websites.

Are people in your company working remotely?

Creative Virtual has designed its business to enable people to work from anywhere in the world, and therefore from a systems and process perspective we were well prepared. With everyone working from home, and mostly in locked-down conditions, it was important that we stayed connected at a human level as well as a work level. That’s why I introduced the Creative Virtual Live sessions I mentioned earlier, to learn new things and have some fun at the same time.

Has any particular use of AI and data science against Covid-19-related problems caught your eye?

What’s been particularly eye-catching for me is the high-profile nature in which the use of AI and data science is being used by scientists around the world to produce and constantly refine models that enable politicians to make more informed decisions. When we look back at this time, I believe we will appreciate just what a significant part AI and data played. Standards of living, medicine and medical care are no doubt very different to 1918 when the world faced its most severe influenza pandemic in recent history. It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with that virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million. Today, technology, AI and data are driving contact tracing and predictability models to empower countries to make more informed decisions about lockdowns and social distancing, in order to flatten the curve and come out the other end as quickly as possible.

How do you stay positive in these challenging times?

Helping family and friends, and people in the community, really helps me stay positive. My usual routine of morning exercise (the gym I attend are running live online classes which are fantastic), work, followed by a run before settling down for some nice food in the evening, help to keep me focused (and sane!). Keeping in close contact with family and friends is also helping me stay positive. Adopting a ‘we’re in this together and will get through this together’ attitude is also key to staying positive.

On the company front, we are fortunate to have a product and services that help organisations answer questions about the virus and the various health and government advice and initiatives, which I know gives everyone at Creative Virtual the good feeling that we’re playing our part to help. The Creative Virtual Live sessions have been really great for keeping company morale up and helping keep the team positive.

What have you learned from this situation so far?

The main things that I’ve learned so far are that the NHS and key workers, and their equivalents around the world, are all heroes; that community spirit is alive and well; how much I miss being able to see and hug loved ones and friends; and the support and flexibility that I’ve had from our amazing team at Creative Virtual, together with our customers and partners, has been incredible. It’s also made me realise that despite how much we have developed as a species in terms of science and technology, our entire existence can still be threatened by a sub-microscopic infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of an organism. It underlines how much we still have to learn. It has also made me appreciate the simple creature comforts that we take for granted, such as a coffee with my mum, aunt and their friend.

Three things that will get us out of these tough times.

Three things from a personal perspective – Community spirit: helping and caring for others; Looking after the elderly and vulnerable; Keeping fit and positive.

And three from a company perspective – Great skilled, dedicated and flexible team; Great relationships with our customers and partners; An agile/flexible strategy to balance costs and opportunities as the world starts to emerge from this.

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