ChatBots: Rise of the Machines

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.

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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?
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Not quite easier than your weather app just yet..

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?

6 comments

  1. Well researched post! I think chatbots, despite the recent controversies surrounding them, will definitely become more prevalent. Apple is already trying to develop and leverage Siri–I’ve noticed recently that more of their commercials for the iPhone are featuring Siri, like this one: http://bgr.com/2016/03/16/siri-commercial-cookie-monster/
    I admit that I am skeptical of the usefulness of chatbots in apps like Facebook Messenger–in the time it takes to ask Poncho the weather it seems that it would be faster just to look it up. But knowing Facebook, I’m sure they’re already committed to developing it further so there will no doubt be some sort of advantage to using them in the future. Interested to see what that advantage will be!

  2. Great post. I think these bots are a really important trend and definitely something we’ll be seeing more of in the future. I’m not sure how I see myself using them. A lot of the applications being talked about don’t sound like they would really make my life easier. However, I am interested to see how these bots will be integrated in e-commerce. I don’t know that I’d trust them to help me select items to purchase, but who knows what the future holds?

  3. I agree that bots will be prevalent in the future. In a way they remind me of the old search engine “Ask Jeeves” (which is a precursor to today’s bots). I think once bots hit their stride in terms of actual value they provide to consumers, there will be no going back. The automation will be simple, intuitive, and convenient.

  4. Nice post. I agree that they are pretty much in the “proof of concept” phase, but that the future certainly holds more for these types of bots. What I want is one that will analyze my social media communication and be able to start crafting (drafting) responses to SM requests that I approve. We’re only going to see more bots going forward (and they may be more interesting than many people I talk to online). haha.

  5. Great research here! Very informative. That screenshot of the Hi Poncho bot on FB messenger made me want to throw my computer out the window. To be honest I think bots are definitely here to stay; their lack of operational effectiveness now is definitely just a phase, but once they can begin to perform seamlessly and integrated with our daily lives, I’m confident we won’t remember the days when we could live without them. As scary as that is..

  6. Extremely informative. To Raul’s point above, the lack of effectiveness is most likely short term. Artificial intelligence is only going to become better with time – exponentially as well. The bots will have a good shot at sticking around / become much more normalized

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