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Everything you need to know about chatbots

We are now in the midst of the next big thing with bots, chatbots and artificial intelligence.

Five years ago, when I opened the iPhone app store and typed in augmented reality, I couldn’t believe there were only 32 apps based on what was then a ‘new’ technology. About 18 months later I noticed the number of apps had grown from 32 to 84. There were so few apps that I remember I could count them, literally.

Between 2014 to 2015, those 84 apps grew to over 400 and the exercise of physically counting them became too hard. While the number of apps grew substantially, however the rate of growth was in no way matched by uptake from consumers.

Consumer interest has only recently embraced the technology. By now I expect you’ve heard about, if not played, the world’s’ most massively adopted game in history, Pokémon Go. It introduced a small part of augmented reality to the world.

I expect we’ll see the full implementation and capability of augmented reality slowly emerge and ripple through the consumer market and indeed see it leveraged across mobile tech.

New technologies are going to have an incredible impact our daily lives, even unbeknownst to most of the population. So let’s take a look at them:

  • bots
  • chatbots
  • artificial intelligence (AI)

What is a bot?

A bot is piece of software that is designed and created to automate the kinds of tasks you would usually do on your own, like making a reservation, adding an event to your calendar, or displaying information.

Other types of things bots can do:

  • customer service agents
  • fast food servers
  • personal assistants
  • social media management

Now, imagine leveraging such technology to create a bot that engages with people and stimulates conversation or chat. This is known as a chatbot.

What is a chatbot?

A chatbot is a computer program or algorithm designed to simulate conversation with human users, especially over the internet and can be more commonly found in conversation-based environments or apps.

As one would expect, chatbots could take on many forms, but you don’t have to stretch the imagination too far at all to see that chatbots would be extremely well suited to a social media environment and our community connected world.

Imagine further if chatbots were deployed in a Facebook environment. You could open your favourite brand’s Facebook Page and ask a question like, is this dress available in blue instead of red? Imagine if chatbot replied, yes. You could even tell the chatbot the size you want to order and where you want it shipped. The chatbot could direct you to Paypal to complete the transaction, and the next day the blue dress would arrive at your door.

Bots are not the future. They have already been implemented and are in use today. Facebook opened its Messenger app to chatbot developers in April 2016. Since then we’ve seen rapid adoption by end users. Some examples of chatbots on Facebook: FooBot by Redfoo. Another is National Geographic Kids (UK).

Some unknown chatbots exist inside Apple’s iMessage application (or so it is speculated). For example, iMessage is capable of including tracking details if you are chatting with FedEx about your parcel delivery. An example of bots on Twitter is @HappyRobot.

Bots are proliferating in business at a speed that we haven’t seen since the introduction of apps. They are automating workflows, making to-do lists, taking customer orders, writing up proposals, answering customer enquiries and FAQs and acting as sales assistants and personal assistants.

One business-focused messaging service utilising bot technology is Slack. Pizza Hut in the US also recently launched a chatbot to take orders and claw back some market share from Domino’s Pizza app Taco Bell in the US similarly built a chatbot that lets customers place orders in Slack.

Other platforms using chatbots:

  • Telegram
  • Kik
  • Slack
  • Skype
  • Facebook
  • iMessage (internal experimentation)
  • WordPress

What is Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial intelligence is a computer system that is able to do the kinds of things that normally require human intelligence, such as speech recognition, taking notes, setting reminders, making decisions and translating between languages, to mention a few.

Practical examples are: Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana or Android’s ‘Ok Google’. Effectively these are all bots. The difference between artificial intelligence and bots is the ability to evolve and learn over time based on responses or outcomes. The ability to ‘think’.

Let me explain with an example. I asked Siri, are you Siri? She replied, I am Siri. I asked her again, are you Siri? And again she responded, I am Siri. The third time I asked, she answered, Siri, that’s me!

By the third question, Siri learns the pattern and responds differently. One could argue she is programmed that way, but the point is the bot has the ability to learn, adapt and respond, even if it is programmed to do so.

Let me take this one step further. Think about how much personal data your phone contains. Now think of how smart Siri is. Next, think of how powerful chatbot technology is, even if only based on the simple examples I used above. Now imagine for a minute mixing the three: a smartphone (Siri), a chatbot and AI.

What if your favourite brand could draw on all of your personal information, based on Siri’s brain, to deliver targeted, measured responses to you in real time when you engage with the brand in social media or online. The result would be a perfectly targeted marketing outcome.

This is where I think AI, bot and chatbot technology may end up – and that raises some serious questions. What if this functionality lands in the wrong hands? Or is used unethically? Who sets the rules? Who decides who can play the game?

With free and open developer environments like Facebook Messenger, we have to consider questions like, would you open your calendar to a bot so that it could book appointments for you? What if that data got into the wrong hands?

As we consider the future of bots, chatbots and AI, I’m curious to know what you think. How far can bots go? Where will we draw the line on bots replacing people?

Glenn Miller is a digital and online marketing specialist and entrepreneur.

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