A revolution in artificial intelligence is at hand. And, if the bots are to be believed, our new AI pals just want to make the world a friendlier, more helpful place.
These bots aren't robots. They're chatbots — software that uses AI to have one-on-one conversations with and do tasks for users. They communicate by voice or text, and most often run through messaging services such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, Kik, and Facebook Messenger. Hail a cab, pay a bill, buy a better blush; there's probably a bot for that.
"The world is about to be rewritten, and conversational [user interfaces] and bots are going to be a big part of the future," venture capitalist and Evernote co-founder Phil Libin recently told CNBC.
Chatbots, which also go by the less affable term "automated messaging," can inhabit spaces other than messaging apps. You're likely already on a first-name basis with some popular ones. Think Siri, Apple's at-the-ready, voice-driven helpmate, and Cortana, Microsoft's personal assistant. Both are universal bots, meaning they operate across an entire device — accessing the internet as readily as they do personal files — rather than within one specific application.
Messaging apps, however, have distinguished themselves as a valuable and growing platform, attracting more than 1.4 billion monthly users worldwide — a number predicted to reach 2 billion by 2018. Given their scope, many industry leaders think these services, and the bots they enable, will reshape the online landscape. "Chat apps will come to be thought of as the new browsers; bots will be the new websites," Kik founder Ted Livingston told Digiday. "This is the beginning of a new internet."
The rise of the chatbots has come about largely because of improvements in technology; bots are getting smarter, more versatile, and more human in their speech. Consider a typical app, say from United or Target. They have to be downloaded, require users to navigate a maze of options and menus, and often necessitate creating (yet another) user account. Chatbots bypass all that, allowing for quicker, more direct interaction; you tell a bot you're looking for a blue wool sweater, and the bot lays out the choices. They also can recognize a wide array of phrases, and respond accordingly. (Sometimes too well, as in the case of Microsoft's Tay, a chatbot that was quickly muzzled after it began mirroring users' racist comments.) In instances where a request or question is too complex, some bots get an assist from a real human employee.
The most sophisticated bots "store, synthesize, and recall lots of information, like your home address or credit card number, to make your life easier. They can even anticipate what you want before you ask," says Business Insider. It's these kind of abilities that have some predicting a future where everyone has a chatbot for a personal assistant. But it wouldn't have to stop there; imagine a whole string of interactions between bots. Your chatbot arranges for a car to take you home through the Uber bot, then learns from the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines bot that your husband's flight is delayed, and orders some pizza for delivery from a Domino's bot (maybe even delivered by an actual robot).
"This is the rich world of conversations that we envision, people to people, people to personal digital assistants, people to bots, and even personal digital assistants calling on bots on your behalf. That's the world that you're going to get to see in the years to come," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said at the company's developer conference in late March.
In the here and now, a range of businesses are jumping on the bot bandwagon. The Washington Post is creating a bot to talk with readers and research news. Mattel designed its Hello Barbie as a hybrid doll-chatbot that uses AI software to interact with kids. And Taco Bell has collaborated with Slack on the TacoBot; users can order ahead for pick-up and even get recommendations.
"You're going to see a bot explosion," Beerud Sheth, CEO of messaging platform Gupshup, told Adweek. "I think it's safe to say that this is the year of the bot. All of the technology pieces are in place."
As for messaging apps, they're making it easier than ever for businesses to create and disseminate their bots. Kik, which has 275 million users — 70 percent aged 13 to 24 — launched a Bot Shop in April. The store, like Apple's App Store, includes bots by businesses such as Sephora, H&M, Vine, and The Weather Channel.
Then there's Facebook. At its recent F8 conference, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the company would be handing out the tools that developers need to create bots that are compatible with Messenger. Currently, more than 50 million businesses operate on Messenger, and about 900 million people use the app each month.
As Zuckerberg said of his vision, "We think you should message a business just the way you would message a friend."
May the bots agree with him.