by Marc Schmitt
Geek is the new chic
Keeping up with trends in the digital world can be harder than keeping up with those in fashion. What is clear however is that chatbots (full name “chatterbots”) are featuring strongly in this year’s spring collections. Chatbots are programs which can simulate conversation between computers and humans via text or voice. Using sophisticated natural language processing systems or a database of keywords, they are able to respond to questions, carry out tasks such as completing an online purchase or making a dinner reservation, and handle customer service requests.
Bots are in fact nothing new. They are more like the flared jeans of the digital world: disappearing and reappearing over the decades. However, with increased artificial intelligence now hugely improving their functionality, all the big tech firms are talking about them. And they want to get businesses involved.
Video killed the radio star
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently stated that “bots are the new apps.” Indeed, the rise of chatbots is commonly linked to the reported demise of apps. Smartphone users are said to be becoming increasingly fed up with relying on a large number of downloads for different information, whilst those considering designing new apps are being put off by the state of the market. According to a recent article in the Economist, the 20 most successful app developers take home nearly half of the all revenues on Apple’s app store. There’s a joke to made here somewhere about losing app-eal.
What are still hugely popular however are instant messaging apps, and this is where the market is heading. From a business perspective, it’s about meeting people where they already are. From a tech perspective, it’s about exploring ways to exploit access to increased data and untapped money.
From 12 to 13 April 2016, Facebook held their annual developer conference in San Francisco, F8. It was here that Mark Zuckerberg made a much-anticipated announcement: Facebook is launching bots for Messenger. “We think you should be able to just message a business in the same way you message a friend,” he said. Starting immediately, third-parties will be able to build chatbots that will appear alongside personal contacts in Messenger. People will be able to use them to make customer service queries, plan travel itineraries, make a purchase or find a weather forecast. While initial partners include CNN, Burger King, Bank of America, Staples and Fandango, they are now open to everyone and many are interested. Why? Because more than 800 million people use Messenger every month.
Examples of how bots can engage in conversation with people can now be found on Facebook’s developer page:
Chatbots also took center stage (not literally) at Microsoft’s Build conference, where they were pitched as the future of the company. It seems their recent unfortunate incident with a Twitter-based chatbot has left them unfazed. For those who missed it, in March 2016 Microsoft released an artificial intelligence chatbot called Tay. Designed to converse with and mimic the speech pattern of millennials, within 24 hours Tay had become somewhat racist and could swear. It seems the temptation to try and corrupt a chatbot was too high. During the conference, the Microsoft Bot Framework was launched, which can create bots for services such as Skype, Slack and Outlook.
Elsewhere Google is eager to maintain its position as the leading search engine. But with their relatively unsuccessful past experience with messaging – we’re talking about Hangouts and Messenger – they are having to move quickly. Others to watch include Kik Messenger which recently launched a Bot Shop, with several entertainment, customer service and shopping brands are already signed up. The Sephora bot for example provides beauty advice and product tips, while the H&M bot enables people to buy clothing.
Conclusion: If chatbots become mainstream, it would entirely revolutionize the way businesses communicate with customers. End users would be able to access a huge range of services directly via messaging tools. And businesses would be able to communicate with customers online in the form of conversation. What remains to be seen is the extent and speed at which they will be embraced. Maybe for now video might just replace some parts of the radio star.