digital

The Rise of the Bots

Everywhere you turn these days there seems to be another potential tech disruptor raising its head above the parapet. The topic for today is the bot.

The rather cutesy name – bot – conjures up a sci-fi future of robotic machines doing everything for us lazy humans, who might be otherwise left to sojourn on our flying chairs a la the folks in Wall-E. Set a few hundred years from now, having abandoned a wrecked Earth, people are overweight, can barely walk on their short stubbly evolved legs and bark orders for everything they want. Robots zip around everywhere doing all the work.

I wonder if we’re really a hundred or so years away from this now. I reckon it’s almost upon us. And, as for obesity, well that is certainly among us – just look at the evidence.

But let’s get back to modern day bots. A bot, or ‘internet bot’, is simply “a piece of software that runs automated scripts over the internet” (Wikipedia).

Some are malicious (such as spambots roaming the internet for email addresses they can pester or mailboxes they can take over), and some are there to do good (answering your questions or suggesting a great blouse to go with that new dress).

Whatever they are up to, they account for almost half of all internet traffic. On smaller websites, it could be 80% or more. We know that Google sends robots to check websites out, index their content, and help rank them in their search engine. This cannot be done by humans, there is just too much stuff to read.

If, like me, you have an iPhone, then you may already be used to conversing with Siri, who is (of course) a bot. Have no hands free to tap an SMS, look up a contact’s phone number or check your appointments for tomorrow? Simply hold down the screen button and Siri is there to help.

With the release of Google Home, you can now have a Siri-like service sitting on your side table to answer your beck and call – what time is it in India? what’s the traffic like on the commute today? and what are the answers to your kid’s tricky homework questions?

A short journey from here are the bots already installed on Facebook, who can answer your typed questions. It’s like talking to a real, live person, except there’s no one there. It’s a bot. Also, have you noticed how Uber has quietly slipped inside Google Maps and Facebook Messenger to be able to offer you a ride without leaving their service?

That pop up window offering you answers to your questions on that website you’re on? Increasingly likely, there’s no one there. It’s a chatbot.

Based on what you say or type, the bot can quickly provide you with answers or suggestions to your queries, and can do this 24/7. They don’t get tired, have coffee breaks or moods. They can understand context, nuance and even sarcasm. Try fooling Siri, and she’ll quickly catch on you’re playing silly buggers.

Some people feel more comfortable talking with a chatbot than a real person, especially if it concerns personal issues such as health or emotional problems.

Over on Slack, the explodingly successful messaging app used by many organisations to better coordinate internal communications, chatbots are inbuilt. They’re called Slackbots (of course), and you can program them to message someone when, say, a certain task is complete, or when some other condition was met, as well as answer questions about a project.

Slack has expanded rapidly from its 2014 start. With a mission to replace internal email, Slack rose to a million users within 18 months with 300,000 of them are paying. Its valuation hit US$ 9 billion in June.

11 million Aussies are already using messaging apps, and 4.5 million use it as their primary communication tool. There is a whole generation of youngsters and others growing up who rarely, if ever, send emails. Perhaps they never will.

It’s not just the young though – the peak age for messenging apps is the 25-34 age group and more than half the 35-54 age group do likewise.

In Australia, Facebook messenger dominates, then it’s Whatsapp and Snapchat.

As a general rule, chatbots work well inside messaging, and more ‘menu driven’ info (such as ordering a meal, with bots suggesting what goes well and selling upgrades), anywhere where there is a fairly simple user experience, such as a check list. Decision tree formats work best. If this, then this, if that, then the other. So, tailored gift recommendations work well.

Bots don’t go all that well (yet) on free flow chat, but tomorrow we could see general chat, voice, avatars or some other abstract versions offering a more conversational approach. Where we end up will probably depend on what customers want and are comfortable with.

The bot battleground will probably be fought between Apple, Google and Facebook, who each want to own that bot search and interaction experience.

Fancy designing your own bot?  Well, you can with Chatfuel, which does bots for Facebook or Motion.ai.

It might be an idea to think how bots could impact your market – how you might use them (start with Slack), or incorporate them into customer service, lead generation and the like? As artificial intelligence (AI) will only get sharper from here, you can bet the bots will be a big part of our future…

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4 thoughts on “The Rise of the Bots

  1. Great post Charlie. Don’t forget Amazon (in that group, Apple, Google and Facebook) and Alexa. She may not be popular in Aus (although there are some people who have imported and go her to work) but she is number one in functionality and user satisfaction in the US (AFAIK). Built into Amazon’s Echo (like Google Home) and now their tablets and other devices, users are really impressed. Apparently Alexa has much better third-party app integration (and the ecosystem has grown as a result) compared to Google and the tardy Apple.

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