Bots are taking over. And no I’m not talking about the walking-talking type, (not yet, anyway), I’m talking about chatbots. If bots aren’t on your radar – and your business radar – they probably should be.
What is a bot?
Put simply(ish), chatbotmagazine explains a chatbot as a service powered by rules and sometimes artificial intelligence that you interact with via a chat interface.
The likelihood is, you’ve already used a chatbot without realising it. When you press and hold your iPhone button and hear the dulcet tones of Siri, that’s a chatbot. When you go on a website and have a box popping up asking if there’s anything they can help with? A chatbot.
Remember Clippy, the somewhat annoying Microsoft assistant? That was one of the first artificial entities (or bots) that most of us will remember.
But now they’re being taken up a level and the tech giants are all jumping on the bot bandwagon. Most bots can be found via websites, smartphone apps or messaging apps like Facebook messenger, but they’re also being incorporated into standalone gadgets, labelled as ‘virtual assistants’.
Take Amazon’s Echo for example. The Echo is a hands-free speaker that connects to the Alexa Voice service. Users can ask Alexa to carry out functions such as turning on music, providing the latest sports scores or giving a weather update.
Google has brought Google Home to the market. This is a voice activated speaker powered by Google Assistant and as well as being compatible with Android and iOS operating systems, it can also connect with smart devices such as Chromecast and Nest. Google markets Google Home as it being able to “simplify your everyday life”.
At Google I/O 2017, Google announced that Google Home now supports virtual responses. You can ask it to show your calendar and it will project the information to your Android TV or phone. Ask it to send directions to your phone and they’ll be ready for you by the time you get in the car. As a result, some analysts are estimating that the Google is on track to sell a million units by the middle of the year.
There’s also Microsoft’s Cortana and as mentioned earlier, Apple’s Siri, which is in development to be turned into a Siri Speaker to compete with Echo and Google Home.
Why are bots the next big thing?
For me, there are three reasons: our attention spans are dwindling, our need for speed is ever rising and the tech giants never sleep.
Bots are designed to allow users to access information and do things faster. First there were apps – designed for consumer ease in gaming, shopping and accessing information – but they still require taps and searches. As time goes on, apps will be seen as the equivalent of looking through the Yellow Pages or spending 20 minutes waiting for Ceefax to change screens so you can find a cinema showing.
Imagine the situation. You’re asked to book a restaurant for a friend’s birthday party. The process as it stands would be researching locations nearby, looking at reviews, visiting the website, calling the venue. On the day of the meal, you use Google maps to check the route and your weather app to check which jacket you need to take.
With a bot, you ask your personal assistant to look for nearby recommended restaurants. It provides several options and asks you if you’d like to book a table. You ask it to check your diary and reply ‘yes’ for 8pm. A bot books it. Your bot sends the route directions to your phone and lets you know there will be a light drizzle. You grab your jacket and go.
How businesses are using bots
The use of messaging apps has now officially overtaken the use of social media. Marketers are constantly trying to analyse where their target market is and how they can reach them on those platforms. With stats highlighting the surge in the popularity of messaging apps, it won’t be long before more and more businesses explore this platform, or risk being left behind.
Facebook announced during this week’s F8 2017 that since the Messenger Platform debuted a year ago, the so-called ‘ecosystem’ has 1.2 billion people and 100,000 monthly active bots. What’s more, 2 billion messages are sent between people and businesses on Messenger every month. Facebook messenger chatbots let you provide consumers with immediate automated responses. Chatbots give businesses the opportunity to nurture relationships with customers and can also be used as part of a wider content marketing strategy or lead generation service.
Here are a few examples:
- Whole Foods’ bot help users find recipes (with a little help from emojis) and takes them through to the Whole Foods website
- CNN has developed a range of bots that help readers digest news stories and provide relevant articles based on interests or a particular search query
- The MEN has created a chatbot called Emmeline that helps answer users’ questions on the upcoming General Election as well as suggesting which party to vote for based on user answers
- Branding agency BGN has an onsite bot as their contact form. It’s a super slick process that collates valuable lead information with ease.
As well as looking pretty fancy, there’s a wider benefit to embracing this technology. Forecasts estimate that chatbots will be responsible for cost savings of $8bn annually by 2022, with healthcare and banking set to benefit most.
What are the problems with bots?
The problem with most basic chatbots is that often, they don’t quite live up to user expectation. We’re a complicated species us humans, and we will undoubtedly confuse bots, whether we meant to or not. Some less developed chatbots provide nonsensical answers or complicate a process when, actually, it may have been easier just to pick up the phone and speak to someone – a human someone.
Back in 2016 Microsoft got into a sticky situation when its AI powered bot called Tay, was taught by opportunistic online users how to be racist and generally inappropriate. Unsurprisingly, Tay was quickly pulled. Chatbots have also been known to cause quite a headache for authorities. Take a couple of minutes to read this story about a bot which was developed by a 19-year-old and helped overturn 160,000 parking fines.
There are also concerns from some people about the perceived digital sexism. Note the strong bias towards use of female names and voices for these personal assistants. Why is that? This video from WSJ makes quite an interesting watch.
One thing’s for certain, the likes of Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google are not going to be resting on their laurels. Try to think of something that you think a virtual assistant bot should do and I can almost promise you it’s already in the pipeline…