Sometimes it’s easier to ask a friend for something than try to solve it through an app or a brand website. This is how we can summarize what is a chatbot.
Pypestream, a 50-person firm that makes automated messaging services for companies around the world. Its mobile platform, has already amassed 3,500 clients in 50 countries, ranging from utilities like Washington Gas to publishers like Billboard. It joins a growing number of startups using automated messaging to help consumers do everything from hailing cabs to paying bills. Some say these services, known as chatbots, could be the biggest digital to-do since mobile apps. The bots are forms of artificial intelligence that create personalized one-to-one interactions. “I think you’re going to see a bot explosion,” predicted Beerud Sheth, CEO of messaging platform Gupshup. “I think it’s safe to say that this is the year of the bot. All the technology pieces are in place.” Over the past few years, chatbots have made a comeback. With advancements in processing power, bots now have a better ability to interpret natural language and learn from users over time. Just as importantly, big companies like Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft are now eager to host our interactions with various services, and offer tools for developers to make those services available. Chatbots easily fit into their larger business models of advertising, e-commerce, online services, and device sales. Meanwhile, services that want to reach hundreds of millions of customers on a platform like Messenger will be helping to write the chat scripts. “A lot of the things that were barriers to us back then are no longer barriers to us today because of the evolution of the way technology works,” Hoffer says.
Crucially, these bots are meant to be useful out of the gate, they no longer need conversation as a crutch for mass adoption. Sure, Apple’s Siri knows how to break the ice with a few jokes, but it largely exists to help you get things done. Rival assistants from Google and Amazon don’t exhibit much personality at all. Utility is winning out because the technology allows for it.
The emergence of chatbots could have profound implications for brand interactions with their customers. Agencies say they’re getting more inquiries from brands and more business pitches from platforms. “Everyone is watching the space right now, and that’s great,” Mike Roberts, head of messenger services at Kik, said. “Every major messenger is in [the chatbot space], and I can’t remember the last time we’ve all made a bet together. It’s only going to drive more interest.”
But just as the bot topic heats up, Microsoft is managing a meltdown. Tay—a bot designed to communicate like a millennial—spewed racist, misogynistic and anti-semitic tweets and bragged about smoking pot in front of a policeman. Every time robots try to act like people it’s usually a recipe for disaster
Still, Ahmed and other agency executives say an oversaturated app market, the wide adoption of short-form communications like emojis and Internet slang, and the growing interest in AI make 2016 a perfect storm for bots. “This is another wave of interactions that I think you have to be on top of,” said Critical Mass chief strategy officer Grant Owens. “I think it will start to compete with the dot-com that you’ve put all your time and energy into. And if you’re not ahead of that, you risk losing out to your competitors.”
In other words, we wouldn’t just be playing with chatbots anymore. We’d be using them.