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Posts tagged: next it

Tupac or Ann? Aetna uses Next IT’s avatar to give quick customer info

The April 16 featured a story on the use of avatars and virtual assistants in health care.

The story mentioned Spokane's Next IT and its “Ask Ann” tool developed for Aetna Insurance. (The WSJ may require a subscription to read the full story.)

Notably, this appeared in the same week that Digital Domain Media Group, a California tech firm, produced a “virtual Tupac Shakur,” a projected image representing a singing stage version of the late rapper.

Which opens this topic: where will virtual agents make the fastest progress? Helping people stay healthy or toward holographic entertainment?

We're voting toward entertainment.  As the WSJ story noted, there are clear limits to the virtual role computers and software can play in a complex area like health care.

The Ask Ann avatar developed for Aetna really is an information clearing house. An Aetna spokesperson noted that Ann helps members retrieve forgotten user names or passwords and more importantly, it helps members with questions about claims, claim status, coverage, ID cards and benefits.

Aetna started using it two years ago.

The tool is similar to avatars Next IT has sold to the U.S. Army, Merrill Lynch and some airlines. The debate is whether computer agents can take on any of the diagnostic or prescriptive roles that doctors, nurses or physician's assistants can do. 

Any thoughts on that?

To get a quick tour of the Ann avatar at Aetna, it's available here.

Army extends its contract with Next IT for “Sgt. STAR”

U.S. Army officials have re-upped their commitment to Sgt. STAR, the tech “virtual assistant” developed by Spokane's Next IT.

The Sgt. STAR tool on provides an automated, conversational set of answers to many questions raised by people looking at joining the service.
The Army first began using Sgt. STAR in 2006. The company also has virtual assistant deals with a number of airlines and firms in the financial services sector.

United Airlines will start using Next IT’s virtual customer agent next year

Spokane based tech company Next IT announced Thursday United Airlines will start using its virtual customer agent online next year.

The company has developed similar products for Alaska Airlines and for Continental Airlines.

Alaska's personalized question-answer agent lets fliers and passengers query “Jenn” which then provides short answers on schedules, ticket prices and fares. Continental's agent is branded “Alex.”

Next IT spokeswoman Jennifer Snell said United will deploy the agent in 2012 and has not revealed its brand name.

At this point, none of the airlines is offering a mobile-specific app that incorporates the Next IT agent, she said. Airlines do have apps that provide quick responses on flight information and other related matters.

One of the first agents Next IT developed was the “Sgt. Star” tool that has been used on the recruiting site.

GU tries out mobile version of Next IT virtual agent Ask Spike

Spokane's Next IT has developed a text message(SMS)-based version of its interactive virtual agent software and has installed it for Gonzaga University's “Ask Spike” application.

Gonzaga has been one of Next IT's early adopters of the virtual agent service, which allows people to chat or ask questions and get responses without human intervention.

Others who've adopted the technology are the U.S. Army (on, some airlines and Merrill Lynch.

With mobile about to become a more dominant area for corporate customer relations, Next IT saw the need to revise the program to allow for SMS or text-message answers.

Until now, the GU “Ask Spike” service was only available on the web. Find that option at in the askspike button on the top of the page.

To text Spike, use 699247 (MyZAGS). The coders have developed a little set of catch-all answers to coy questions.
We tried the question: “Who's your daddy?” 
Answer:  “Next I.T. is the company that provides the tech that makes me work.”
We followed with: ” How old are you?”
Answer: “I don't age. But thanks for asking.”

Senate commitee approves defense bill, with Spokane earmarks intact

The 2011 Defense Department appropriations bill, which we mentioned in an earlier post here, has moved through the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The vote was 18-12. The bill includes three items items inserted by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., which provides money for three Spokane tech agencies or firms.

Those items are covered in the earlier post. The next step is consideration of the bill by the full Senate. It’s not clear when that will occur.


Murray pushing defense dollars for Spokane area tech projects

Patty Murray, D-Wash., has added language to the 2011 defense appropriation bill that would benefit area businesses and organizations. Here are the key Eastern Washington items added to the bill, which is now being considered by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

  1. Washington State University’s Applied Science Laboratory: $1 million to be used to establish a fuel and energy lab at the ASL in Spokane. One goal is to work with Spokane’s ReliOn in developing alternative energy sources for the Navy.
  2. WSU’s Positron Capture and Storage Project: $3 million for reseach into positron storage,  a high-density, concentrated non-nuclear energy source.
  3. Spokane tech company Next IT: $1.5 million to design and develop virtual agent software to help servicemembers, vets and families obtain information about care and treatment.



Next IT ships “Ann” to Aetna for virtual chat help

Insurance provider Aetna is using online virtual-assistant technology developed in Spokane on its secure member website. Developed by Spokane tech firm Next IT, the virtual assistant “Ann” replies to questions with on-screen text answers and with audio responses in a perky female voice.

It’s been in use since January at the insurance giant’s Aetna Navigator portal, which has more than 11 million registered users.

Since being launched, the Ann assistant has cut phone help requests by 29 percent, said Sherry Sanderford, a spokesperson at Aetna’s headquarters in Hartford, Conn.

The company also said Ann generates 2,500 chat sessions per day. For now the tech tool helps members logon or register at the benefit information site. Ann will gain additional features and a larger role in member assistance over time, said Sanderford.

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John Stucke John Stucke is a deputy city editor who helps build local news coverage and writes about health care, bankruptcy and rural affairs.

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Scott Maben Scott Maben is a Deputy City Editor who covers North Idaho news and higher education.

Addy Hatch is the city editor, and formerly was business editor.

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