Seinfeld Helps Make Machines a Little More Human

Seinfeld Helps Make Machines a Little More Human

In 1844, the first telegraph message was sent, laying the groundwork for many advancements that would lead to the internet. Since then, communication has become ever more dependent on technology. Eventually, thanks to advances in AI (artificial intelligence), we may not even realize that we’re talking to a machine instead of a person.

Gong.io, an AI-based startup, features a tool that harnesses both machine learning and natural language processing to help train salespeople and customer service reps. That, on its own, may not sound earth shattering, but the game changer is how Gong.io’s creators have used Seinfeld to teach the software about the natural rhythms and cadence of human speech.

The Comma Conundrum

Across the board, AI has gotten pretty good at capturing language, but it falls short when it comes to understanding where to place commas, periods, and ellipses that are naturally peppered throughout human speech.

Gong.io’s primary purpose is to record, transcribe, and analyze sales and service calls so that sales leaders can instantly evaluate what worked (or didn’t work) in a call. The platform uses AI-powered conversation intelligence to help trainers offer targeted coaching to improve the customer experience. Until now, sales transcripts have omitted punctuation, leaving the coaching team without nuanced information about the ebb and flow of the conversation.

But those days of punctuation-free transcription are over. Gong.io has finally cracked the comma code.

Yada, Yada, Yada

It seems that all it takes to teach a computer the subtleties of human speech is a Seinfeld marathon. This sitcom phenomenon continues to be just as popular and engaging today as it was when it first hit TV screens nearly twenty years ago, and with 180 episodes in its lexicon, it’s a fairly comprehensive catalog of human speech and interaction.

Phrases like “Festivus,” the pervasive “Yada, yada, yada,” and “No soup for you!” have become fixtures in the American vernacular. And now, Gong.io uses this pop culture icon to help computers better understand and mimic the way we speak.

Using transcripts of beloved Seinfeld episodes, they have trained their conversation intelligence platform to understand and identify linguistic cues that signal punctuation.

Why Pop Culture Makes AI Smarter

The Seinfeld solution was the brainchild of Lotem Peled, one of Gong.io’s data scientists. Because they wanted Gong.io to understand, interpret, and respond to the elements of conversation better than previous AI platforms, Peled knew they needed to find a new way to teach their program about natural speech patterns and human interaction.

It’s not easy to translate the nuances of nonliteral communication—irony, humor, sarcasm—into data that can be understood by AI. Especially when you also want the AI system to detect and respond to those elements in real time. They had to find a rich source of material that was broad enough to capture these patterns consistently and make them recognizable via AI. Enter Seinfeld, a TV show where characters were often speaking over one another and sarcasm ruled supreme.

In an email Q&A I had with company representatives, Peled said, “The AI training process involved listening to examples of speech that are as close as possible to real sales phone calls but most of the databases we turned to were engineered and didn’t sound like natural human chatter. We realized that movie and TV scripts were a fantastic place to find plentiful nuanced, human conversations filled with more punctuation that we could have imagined!”

When asked the question, “Why Seinfeld?” Peled said, “At first our data scientists used a wide range of movie scripts.  After a while, they noticed that there were certain real-life conversational patterns that simply didn’t occur organically in movie scripts like repetition of the same word “I, I, I, I just wanted to say” and expressions like “um”, “uh”. Jerry Seinfeld’s monologues are full of such examples. As soon as we started using them we saw significantly improved results in our AI.  Our AI was picking up on how humans actually interact through speech and it could apply those lessons to sales calls.”

The Proof Is in the Pudding

Thanks to the Seinfeld solution, Gong.io uses advanced speech recognition and language processing to make instant suggestions and help steer a sales or service conversation as it’s happening. In addition to looking for keywords, Gong.io can anticipate the likely outcomes of conversations, which pushes this AI tool well past the stodgy limitations of Siri and into a brave new future.

This technology could be the boost AI needs to do more than just think like humans—it could also make judgement calls. And those judgements could be faster and more reliably correct than those we make on our own.

Peled’s idea was inspired, and Gong.io is definitely reaping the benefits. The startup has raised just north of $26 million so far, and Bendov claims the conversation intelligence solution has helped its customers rake in a collective $1 billion in revenues.

With AI that can help pull sales and service reps out of sticky situations with customers, it’s no wonder the platform is making such a big splash. But that’s not the only reason people are standing up and taking notice. Gong.io’s intuitive aspects hold many possibilities for the future of AI and how it can enhance our lives.

“I hope that my research is a stepping stone for making machines a bit more human,” Peled said in an article on BusinessCloud. “And helping them understand our language in a more refined way.” She even imagines that this technology could help people with autism or Asperger’s syndrome who struggle to decipher nonliteral communication.

Thanks to Gong.io’s game-changing tech—and the comic genius of Seinfeld—we may soon live in a very different world of AI technology.

This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.

Read next: Top Trends that are Shaping the Online Travel Industry