Blow to IBM as OpenAI gives Vodafone's chatbot the superhero treatment

Vodafone has upgraded its virtual assistant TOBi and relaunched it as 'SuperTOBi', presumably because it was a Friday afternoon and time was tight.

Nick Wood

July 4, 2024

2 Min Read

In all seriousness, TOBi is the same virtual assistant that customers know and love ('tolerate' might be more accurate), enhanced with OpenAI's generative AI (GenAI) technology, running on Microsoft Azure.

Voda says SuperTOBi can interpret entire sentences and phrases, overcoming the limitations of existing chatbot technologies which typically can answer only simple questions based on a few key words. It can also engage in more natural conversation.

SuperTOBi is being rolled out across Europe. It has already gone live in Italy and Portugal, and is due to start serving customers in Germany and Turkey later this month.

In Portugal, where SuperTOBi is being used for appointment booking, first-time resolution rate has increased from 15% to 60%, and Voda's online net promoter score (NPS) has increased by 14 points to 64 points.

Every superhero has an origin story.

TOBi's begins in 2017, when it was launched as a means to provide instant responses to customer queries, rather than making them wait for a human assistant to become available. Voda said at the time that TOBi understood 90% of incoming queries, and was able to interact conversationally, and even make changes to customer accounts.

The part of this origin story that's particularly interesting – because it underscores just how quickly and dramatically the GenAI market has evolved in the last couple of years – is that the first TOBi was powered exclusively by IBM's Watson AI technology.

That Vodafone has opted to switch to ChatGPT maker OpenAI for SuperTOBi shows just how far IBM's star has fallen.

IBM was doing pioneering work with Watson. Leveraging IBM's mainframe and supercomputing pedigree, Watson made headlines in 2011 when it took on and beat two champions of US quiz show Jeopardy. Through Watson, terms like 'natural language processing' entered common parlance – maybe not common, but among the tech crowd at least.

However, as detailed by the New York Times in a 2021 feature titled "What Ever Happened to IBM's Watson?" IBM made a costly bet on Watson being used for healthcare, specifically cancer treatment. While the aim was laudable, it was a case of IBM trying to run before it could walk, and the undertaking exposed Watson's limitations at that time.

With IBM consumed by the Herculean task of trying to revolutionise oncology, that left a window of opportunity for others to steal in and supplant IBM in the generative AI market.

The most notable one of those is of course OpenAI, and these days its CEO Sam Altman is the person most often portrayed as the driving force of GenAI technology.

Watson still exists as Watsonx – a portfolio of various GenAI solutions pitched at developers and enterprises. But it's a far cry from the heady days of Jeopardy, and now it seems not even SuperTOBi can save it.

About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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