Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Chatbots Take Off

Artist's representation of a chatbot.
A growing number of companies have started experimenting with how bots and chatbots could fundamentally change the way their communications and customer service.

When Facebook announced in April that companies could start using its Messenger mobile app for free, it set off what is looking like The Year of Bots 1.0, as a number of companies have started experimenting with how bots and chatbots could fundamentally change the way their communications and customer service are handled.

Bots are software that automate tasks, and chatbots add a conversation function layered on top of communications platforms.

A number of firms already have launched chatbots that work with Messenger for customer service functionality, or offer interactive bots to help customers browse online stores or request information. The Dutch airline KLM is using Messenger to issue boarding passes and provide customer service. In the case of Pizza Hut, a bot can take delivery orders from customers with Pizza Hut accounts to improve accuracy and eliminate wait times. The Whole Foods chatbot lets customers find products and recipes, also from their phone, using Messenger.

Since launching the Skype Bot Platform in March, Skype, a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft, claims over 30,000 developers have started building bots. Microsoft also incorporated the Skype Bot Platform and the Microsoft Bot Framework into one environment so developers can automatically configure bots on that platform to work on Skype, instead of having to copy and paste configuration data between platforms.

In July, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told an audience at the company’s Worldwide Partner Conference that chatbots will "fundamentally revolutionize how computing is experienced by everybody." For the time being, he maintained, "bots will augment apps, but in time, human language will be taught to all computers and become" the new interface.

"So pretty much everyone today who is building applications, whether they be mobile apps or desktop apps or websites, will build bots as the new interface, where you have a human dialogue interface versus menus of the past," Nadella said.

The birth of the bot economy began in June 2015, when the Russian instant messaging service Telegram, which has over 100 million users, launched a bot platform and a "bot store," according to The Economist. The service now has thousands of bots providing news alerts from media organizations, and feeds that link to football videos or porn.

Talking to a company’s bot can be a more efficient way to find information and services that otherwise must be searched for on the Web or in a mobile app store, says Facebook. If people do not want to chat with a business, they can hit a prominently displayed "Block" button to shut down a bot, and Facebook will also vet what companies build prior to launching on Messenger.

Travel site Expedia in June launched a simple bot for Messenger that will help travelers book hotel rooms. The bot uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) to answer travelers’ common questions through searchable content. "The bot operates on a structured conversation flow; it analyzes information provided and prompts the user to input other relevant data points to complete a search,’’ explained David Fleischman, Expedia’s president of global product, in a blog post.

As enterprises develop bots, they need to figure out who their logical audience is, notes Jeff Orr, research director for the future enterprise at ABI Research. "There’s going to be employees coming in who want to bring their own devices and in some cases, content, as part of their day,’’ he says. "As companies look to privatize communications … the messaging and chatbot types of opportunities are part of that overall corporate opportunity." Companies need to understand what type of data is being communicated, where it is coming from and on what types of devices, and when to start restricting some of that.

The key is to ensure communications among employees and systems are secure for the business, Orr adds. He believes chatbots will probably not have a significant impact on the enterprise and IT, in terms of revenue opportunities or impact on the bottom line in terms of cost savings, or even in helping business become more efficient. The opportunities will be greatest, he says, when businesses enable services such as machine learning, and artificial intelligence and analytics. If a chatbot receives 1,000 queries about something, for example, the company can derive insights from that, summarize what the takeaways are from all those chatbot conversations, and figure out what the next function should be.

Chat and conversational commerce have been discussed for some time now, observes Sucharita Mulpuru, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. Mulpuru believes "there is a long, long way to go before these bots are widely used, or even that useful." Customer service, ordering, and contextual information are all important, she says, but "100% of communication with enterprises will never migrate to bots—but maybe some portion of it will, especially if it is combined with voice and audio recognition and speaking features." 

Esther Shein is a freelance technology and business writer based in the Boston area.

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