With technology pioneers Facebook and Microsoft both throwing their multibillion hats into the chatbot ring,it is safe to say the dawn of the bot is upon us.
But “what is a chatbot?” we hear you confusedly cry. Well, you’re going to hear a lot of noise about them and while the name might explain a lot, let us clear up the many unanswered questions of what they’re for, how they work and whether they’re the harbinger of the inevitable robopocalypse.
What is a chatbot?
In basic terms, a chatbot is a rudimentary form of artificial intelligence software that can converse with humans to answer questions or simply natter to us in as lifelike a manner as possible.
The scope and complexity of a chatbot is determined by the creator’s algorithmic aptitude.
Combining pre-set scripts and deep learning neural networks, bots can predict an accurate response to a posed question or statement in a way that skips phases of conversation to mimic regular chat.
As an example, you could ask a chatbot which big budget blockbusters are currently showing at the cinema and be offered the answer, as well as it smartly recognising you might want to know related facts such as theatre location and screening time, without you needing to ask additional questions — something a “meat-bag” human might fail to offer.
Where can you use them and why?
Most likely you are using them already, you just don’t know it. If you have ever asked Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana what the weather will be like for a weekend picnic, you have unknowingly conversed with a chatbot usually dubbed as a personal assistant.
Facebook’s F8 conferenceon 12 April 2016 specifically focused on the future of chatbots in its own proprietary instant messaging client, and echoed a wider trend of bots invading online chatter.
The social media giant announced that the Facebook Messenger app will now allow retailers and news/public information outlets to integrate bots capable of responding to user queries, with the promise that any required responses would be much faster than waiting to speak to a real-life representative.
In China, for example, users of the WeChat texting service can pay for services from verified companies and restaurants within the chat app.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated the potential of third-party bots with US florist 1-800-Flowers, a company that has designed a bot to “answer questions,make gifting suggestions, process orders [and] send shipping updates” in a conversational manner.
Uber taxi bookings, Wall Street Journal stock updates and Expedia holiday planning are also prepared or alreadyavailable, bots on Facebook Messenger are seemingly here to stay.
It certainly doesn’t stop there though, Microsoft already has a ludicrously popular and surprisingly compassionate chatbot in Xiaoice – a Chinese companion intended for teens that youngsters have been more than willing to pledge their undying love to— and tech giants like Amazon and Google are heavily invested in talkative AI.
Is a chatbot the ‘next big thing’?
This learn “on the job” intelligence signals a shift in focus that Evan Wray – co-founder and VP of Swyft Media – believes will see bots becoming a common, efficient alternative to apps in the near future. Wray toldIBTimes UK:
“Bots are going to explode and the phenomenon is sure to run through into the foreseeable future – and there’s no question that they’re already dominating the news right now. Much like the way that many jumped on the branded emoji phenomenon last year – chatbots offer brands an extension of that method of marketing by making it easy, natural and fun for the consumer to engage with brands without feeling like it’s an advertisement or marketing. While chatbots may not replace the app experience entirely, they can offer a new and flexible way for brands to create new experiences for mobile users. Sofor example, instead of having to download and register for an additional dedicated app to access a new service, mobile messaging users will simply send a text to their bot of choice to do a variety of activities such as purchasing cinema tickets, calling a taxi, ordering a take-away or simply to catch up on the latest news stories.”
What lies in the future?
As for the future of bot-kind? Well, with the ubiquity of messaging apps, the over arching public desire for more efficient online services and industry figureheads heralding chatbots as the “next big thing”, it is hard to imagine that chatbots will be disappearing any time soon.
Between Facebook teaching its AI to read children’s stories and researchers suggesting that Google’s Deep Mind learning system will one day be able to accurately predict changes in the stock market, the technology behind chatbots is advancing at an unprecedented rate, resulting in smarter conversation partners with each new development.
Perhaps one day we won’t be able to tell the difference, maybe falling in love with a smartphone assistant won’t just be the subject of a Spike Jonze film. Who knows? Maybe we should ask a chatbot?
By Oliver Cragg