As phone screens get bigger and high-speed connectivity becomes more ubiquitous in many parts of the world, some of the brightest minds in tech are positing something a little strange: That chat bots are going to be play a big role in the future of computing.
And they're not just making statements, but big investments in that idea. Microsoft is doubling down on an ambitious bot strategy that lets you connect your customers to your business through a variety of mediums, like text messaging, Skype and Slack.
And at Facebook's F8 Developer conference, Mark Zuckerberg was clearly thinking along similar lines, launching “bots on Messenger” that allow you to do everything order Flowers, check the news, and book a trip.
To a lot of developers, it sounds like the future. To a lot of early users, it sounds like a new way to be annoyed.
Facebook bots are just like automated voice menus except when you say 'operator' they just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ at you instead of giving you to a human— chelsea hassler (@chelseaadelaine) April 13, 2016
One key challenge: Trying to be conversational and natural when chatbots are still generally pretty limited in what they understand:
CNN Messenger bot is kind of dumb but at least it employs my favorite emoticon (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) when it's confused pic.twitter.com/uupW5ulSCo— Jenn Van Grove (@jbruin) April 12, 2016
When a company gets the experience right, it can be a real differentiator: Amazon's Alexa has proven a sleeper hit by letting users do anything from order a pizza (Domino's seems to be all in on the messaging and AI revolutions) to get an update on the news (as well as the tricks of reading a book or playing music you bought from Amazon).
But at this point, it's hard to say if all this is much more than just that: Tricks.
Hi, there have been chat bots on the internet longer than there's been the World Wide Web on the internet, please learn from history, thx.— Anil Dash (@anildash) April 12, 2016
A lot has changed: People are more used to texting and often expect instant responses, and while Smarter Child could be clever, machine learning and zettabytes of web data now provide a better building block for intelligent agents.
But I still haven't seen a whole lot of compelling use for AI bots when people are now so well adapted to using their phones for simple tasks through apps or web pages. Can businesses offer something that is truly a better experience, when the closet analogue, email, has become beset by spam and overload?
Even Slack, another early leader in the chatbot revolution, is facing a backlash against its messaging software, as it works to strike the balance of availability and access against distraction and noise. And that's when there's people on the other end that need to sleep, eat, and, at least theoretically, occasionally log off. The AI army Microsoft and Facebook would have businesses tap into needs none of that: Just someone on the other end of the line, willing to chat back.