Cisco on AI: The 'Future of Collaboration'

For a company set on "moving at warp speed," Cisco's most recent acquisition target, artificial intelligence startup MindMeld, fits in with the geeky futuristic theme the organization has been championing as of late. With AI making enterprise inroads at a rapid clip, across all industries and all kinds of products, Cisco sees investment in this space as an imperative for the success of its Collaboration business unit.

The MindMeld acquisition aligns with Cisco's mission to get its products into more hands, faster, which is the message Jens Meggers, Cisco's SVP and GM for the Cloud Collaboration Technology Group, drove home in a recent interview about the company's future vision for collaboration.

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Smarter Collaboration

The acquisition sees Cisco paying $125 million to bring the MindMeld technology -- an AI platform for building "human-like" conversational interfaces for voice, messaging, and video in applications and devices -- and the very real human talent behind the platform, under its umbrella.

Cisco will largely leverage the technology to advance Spark, Cisco's team collaboration platform, specifically in the area of ambient listening, as UC analyst Zeus Kerravala told us in his recent No Jitter post on the acquisition. It's easy to conceptualize how AI in the workplace can make workers smarter and more efficient, as Kerravala wrote, calling out an example where a user could ask Spark to summarize Spark messages and identify items that require immediate attention. "If you're of the belief that the amount of data in the workplace will continue to grow exponentially -- and who doesn't believe this? -- an AI capability accessed through speech and messages must drive the future of work," he wrote.

Meggers would surely agree with Kerravala's comment. In our discussion of Cisco's collaboration vision, Meggers confirmed that AI is a necessary component. "We will see, in the next two to five years, collaboration products becoming more intelligent," he said. "It's an unstoppable trend."

But an intelligent conversational interface has value elsewhere, of course, including a "huge" amount in the contact center space, Meggers said. To accommodate specific vertical and company use cases in the customer care world, however, Cisco is going to have to deliver up specific domain knowledge, industry watcher Sheila McGee-Smith shared with me based on a briefing with Cisco's Keith Griffin, a member of Meggers' Collaboration CTO team, held with contact center analysts. For example, answering a question like "What is the weight of that handbag?" will require access to specific product databases. This would open opportunities for professional services for Cisco and channel partners, she added.

Driving the Future of Work

The MindMeld acquisition is not Cisco's first foray into AI as it looks for ways to boost intelligence in the collaboration environment. "Over the past year and a half, we've been working on basically anything we can do to enhance our collaboration portfolio," Meggers said. Last summer Cisco partnered with IBM to integrate Watson with its enterprise collaboration solutions to create a more intelligent experience in the Spark cloud, and, separately, previewed Project Monica, a team-oriented, collaboration-focused virtual assistant prototype.

If you were at Enterprise Connect Orlando in March, you saw Meggers showcase the new and improved Monica, now called "Hey Spark," in his keynote. On stage, Meggers asked Hey Spark to tell him when his next meeting was, and the digital assistant responded, telling him he was seven minutes late before immediately connecting him to the conference call. Once on the call, facial recognition software -- one of three different types of machine learning Cisco has already baked into its video meeting products -- identified each of the meeting participants by name, as shown in the below screen grab.

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"We knew AI would be coming to collaboration sooner or later," Meggers said, "but this is a new expertise area -- we had some of this expertise already, but not enough," he said regarding Cisco's decision to acquire an AI technology company. Cisco wanted to work more with conversational interfaces, he noted, adding that what MindMeld is doing in this area is, well, "incredible."

The MindMeld acquisition represents a doubling -- or "tripling" -- down on AI investments for Cisco, Meggers said. "Just having AI technology is not going to be a super power. You need to configure it properly to get really good results. Once the acquisition closes [at the end of July], we'll be able to really dig into the MindMeld technology and look for ways that it can augment the AI capabilities we already have in Spark," with one goal being to use MindMeld and Watson to complement each other.

Cisco will get the help of roughly 25 MindMeld employees coming on board to join Meggers and his new Cognitive Collaboration team. While Meggers would not say how many people would ultimately make up that team, he did say more than 3,000 people work under him in the larger Collaboration business group.

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