Last year, entrepreneur Sebastian Thrun set out to augment his sales force with artificial intelligence. Thrun is the founder and president of Udacity, an education company that provides online courses and employs an armada of salespeople who answer questions from potential students through online chats. Thrun, who also runs a computer-science lab at Stanford University in California, worked with one of his students to collect the transcripts of these chats, noting which resulted in students signing up for a course. The pair fed the chats into a machine-learning system, which was able to glean the most effective responses to a variety of common questions.
Next, they put this digital sales assistant to work alongside human colleagues. When a query came in, the program would suggest an appropriate response, which a salesperson could tailor if necessary. It was an instantaneously reactive sales script with reams of data supporting every part of the pitch. And it worked; the team was able to handle twice as many prospects at once and convert a higher percentage of them into sales. The system, Thrun says, essentially packaged the skills of the company's best salespeople and bequeathed them to the entire team — a process that he views as potentially revolutionary. “Just as much as the steam engine and the car have amplified our muscle power, this could amplify our brainpower and turn us into superhumans intellectually,” he says.