Why are chatbots suddenly such a big deal?

Why are chatbots suddenly such a big deal?

So far 2016 (which we’re almost halfway through, if you fancy doing a small double-take) has undoubtedly been the year of the chatbot.

There was Microsoft’s first ill-fated attempt to create civil conversation on Twitter. Poor chatbot Tay was turned from an optimistic young algorithm, full of hope and good intentions, to a violently sexist, racist and fascist Twitter-scourge in about 24 hours.

As demonstrations of the technology go, it was unlikely to fill anybody with hope.

More recently, however, Google, Facebook and Microsoft (brave souls) have announced chatbot options with loftier ambitions than simply chatting on Twitter.

In all cases the bots seem to upgrade themselves from friendly annoyance to personal assistant, in varying capacities. Think Jarvis from Iron Man, except 1% as cool and 0% likely to help you shoot anybody.

This comparison may seem flippant and geeky, but hey, Mark Zuckerberg started it.

Why chatbots?

To steal an apt summary from CNet’s Next Big Thing vlog, a chatbot moves away from a fragmented brand essence and into one experience of a brand.

Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and other tech providers who have yet to throw their hat in the ring, all face a battle to see who will be the main platform for this brand experience.

If they take off, the power of the company whose chatbots become the “go-to” can’t be underestimated.

Let’s back up a little and explain…

What the chatbots actually do

Despite technical differences in what they’ll deliver, all three tech giants are offering a similar service.

Basically, chatbots respond intelligently to user interactions and natural speech to serve up what (it thinks) the user wants. Apple’s Siri and Android’s Cortana are (less agile) examples.

In Facebook’s case their bot is fully customisable by brand developers to offer custom commands, buttons and messages according to the brand’s audience.

According to the Facebook blog announcing the release:

“Bots can provide anything from automated subscription content like weather and traffic updates, to customized communications like receipts, shipping notifications, and live automated messages all by interacting directly with the people who want to get them.”

When it comes to Google, they’re upgrading their current Hangouts chat client with other Google search, location and even smart message suggestions courtesy of a friendly bot. Google’s offer (right now) is closest to Jarvis, as it functions more or less like a personal assistant who shows up in chat and accesses a range of brands and services. Still no flying though.

This new app, Allo, can also tell you your agenda for the day, whether your flight is delayed and any other question you’d care to throw at it. Unlike the Facebook app, it brings brands and information to you, rather than having you engage directly with them.

Microsoft have built a newsbot for their News Pro app. It scans the day’s news for developments in your industry or field and chats to you about it. Far from being simply a find and fetch tool, the newsbot can apparently chat about news “all day”, according to their press release.

It’s pretty clear why they’ve taken off

Technology has given us easier access to brands via social media, so our prime methods of communication with brands use language as it’s spoken, not the formal mode of communication that had long been the default between business and consumer. When’s the last time you started a tweet with “To whom it may concern”?

Never. The point is, how we communicate with brands and businesses has moved on, but, autocorrect, regional accents and the ever-evolving nature of colloquial language have foiled robot attempts to interact with humans for years.

Chatbots are different.

They’ll learn to understand language as it’s actually used, rather than being restricted to a strict understanding of only standard English. This will move the interaction between tech and human (and indeed brand and human) into a more relatable, natural space.

It also removes the need for several, fragmented services and (in an ideal world) makes the user experience infinitely easier. Rather than having to guess how the user will behave and building an experience around it, the chatbot can understand exactly what the user wants and deliver it directly to them.

At least, that’s the hope. Whether it works out remains to be seen.

Watch this space.

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