Over the last several weeks I’ve seen more and more articles about Chatbots in the news. They were mentioned at Facebook’s F8 conference last week, created an embarrassment for Microsoft on Twitter a month ago, and have been called one of the most significant tech trends of 2016. All of this got me thinking…what is a chat bot? Why are companies using them? And where are they headed from here? Please read on as I attempt to find the answers to these questions and more.
What Are Chatbots?
Essentially, a chatbot is an element of artificial intelligence companies are deploying on messaging platforms such as FB Messenger or WhatsApp to provide services to users in a more conversational tone. Users can ask bots such as Poncho things like “What’s the weather?” to learn the weather near them or say “zika” to CNN to get the latest news story related to the virus. If you’re thinking this sounds strikingly similar to those old AOL Instant Messenger accounts like SmarterChild, you’re not wrong. It’s basically the same concept, you ask the bot a question and it gives you an answer just as if you were talking to a real person.
However, these bots are far more advanced than their predecessors. Today’s chatbots are poised to become ‘software butlers’ that will soon be able to perform tasks as wide ranging as scheduling flights to buying last minute birthday presents for your friends. The goal here is to allow users to perform a litany of tasks without ever having to exit their favorite messaging apps. In essence, these chatbots are being touted as more convenient and comprehensive in the services they provide than using an application.
Why Are Companies Using Them?
Facebook Messenger has over 900 million users. WhatsApp has over a billion. WeChat has 700 million. Messaging apps are quickly becoming the dominant form of social media. With so many different options, it’s clear that companies need to find some form of advantage to help them stand out from the crowd. That differentiator? Bots.
In terms of Facebook, they hope bots can help FB Messenger and WhatsApp become the dominant app on your phone. If you remember back before mobile became the dominant internet experience, Facebook developed Web Apps that were run within the Facebook ecosystem. Apps like Farmville or Causes were designed to keep people on the social network and away from other sites. After the move to mobile however, Facebook became just another app on your phone. The power shifted to Google and Apple, who created the operating systems on these mobile devices. This experience centers around having numerous apps to accomplish different tasks.
Chatbots are Facebook’s attempt of wrestling back some of that power. By building bots that could perform the same services as apps in a more convenient, faster, and effective fashion, Facebook is hoping users will never have to leave their messaging apps. And just as Google and Apple opened up their app stores to developers all over the world, last week Facebook announced the Messenger Platform to allow anyone to create bots for FB Messenger. Essentially Facebook is planning on bots becoming app replacements, with FB Messenger serving as the dominant bot ‘operating system.’
Where Are They Going From Here?
As of now, chatbots are not very groundbreaking. A lot of conversations simply don’t make sense and are downright frustrating. Most of the bots made by outside developers so far simply mimic their app’s function or actually redirect them to their stand-alone app. In fact, there’s still a surprisingly significant amount of humans doing the dirty work behind bots’ supposed ‘automated’ responses.
However, as more and more people begin to use these bots, interactions with them are bound to improve. Machine learning, more realistic artificial intelligence, and innovative use cases from developers will soon make us question how we ever survived without them. And don’t think Apple or Google have fallen too far behind; I foresee Siri and Google Now quickly being able to catch up and perform many of the same services as their chatbot competitors.
And finally, how does Facebook plan to make money out of this? Beyond the obvious of potentially placing advertisements on FB Messenger or WhatsApp, they’re hoping to one day become the center of online commerce. By having bots be the easiest way to order flowers or buy clothes, Facebook could position itself to take a cut out of each transaction just as Apple does for every app that’s purchased on iOS.
What do you think? Are chatbots just a flashy gimmick or the future of the internet?