Oh my bot! Does the world need chatbots?

June 22 2017
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These days they are everywhere : chatbots – from little Poncho providing the weather forecast to shopping and banking bots, which interact with customers for basic tasks. Say hi to Siri, Cortana or Alexa – these aren’t trending names for newborns, but bots to respond to natural language questions, help fill shopping lists or switch on the lights by voice-activation. And these are only a few options in the range of possibilities of these virtual enable agents, which have taken on many positions in modern society. 

Not that this type of software is a new tool, interacting with a chatbot is already common. Ever recharged a mobile via SMS? Welcome to the wonderful world of bots!
But to hear tech insiders tell it, future bots will be able to act as daily life proxies by ordering today’s dinner, the taxi to the airport, making flight reservations or even help people manage mental health, which the release of the talk therapy bot Woebot shows. Developed by a team of Stanford psychologists and AI experts Woebot uses brief daily chat conversations to do a mood tracking of the user – a potential stopgap for psychiatry.

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Let’s focus on the technological basics – chatbots are conversational interfaces to simplify complex predefined tasks and are encountered on smartphones, websites, social media and even our own homes. Using the enabling technology of AI chatbots apply specialized software or programming languages created for required limited areas of activity, enabling them to ba capable of recognizing speech patterns or even non-verbal cues. These simple systems scan the input for keywords, which match with wording patterns from databases.

Today’s chatbots are used most efficiently for resolving specific tasks, routine issues, or guiding through multi-steps processes like answering simple customer service requests, sending out invoices or corporate news.
Many chatbots operate with messaging, which represents a major component of staying connected with people and daily activities. More than 3 billion people daily communicate via messaging apps worldwide and chatbots open up new opportunities by bringing commerce into the part of daily lives. Closing the loop with the customer along the process and offering access to a range of services, the ROI for businesses is not only an improved customer satisfaction but also efficiency and cost reduction.

Furthermore chatbots are more and more replacing applications since users are getting tired of having plenty of apps in their smartphones and demand centralization in social networks and messaging apps. Instead of investing lots of money in new applications, companies should start taking their businesses to platforms like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, which their customers are already using to communicate.
The opportunities of chatbots for businesses are reflected by an increase of investments in AI and machine learning systems by almost all the big players in 2016. Facebook’s 2016 F8 conference was all about the bots and led to a continuous intense experimental phase with bots to explore possible benefits for customers and businesses. This even made the grand vision of entirely replacing applications and going from a visual UI back into conversational a possible scenario.

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AI is undoubtable set to revolutionize nearly every aspect of the modern world and chatbots are seen as easy and fun ways to help businesses and customers achieve an outcome, but let’s also keep an eye on unintended consequences of usage.

In Asian countries such as China, social media is far more integrated as an organic part of the purchasing process, which is based on major differences between western and Chinese consumer psychology. Due to numerous product safety scandals a tendency to having many questions about products before purchasing evolved and years before Facebook and other competitors came up with similar ideas, WeChat created chatbots to satisfy the customers’ urge for knowledge. Since 2013 the platform has become one of the favored ways for brands to interact with customers online and is installed on almost every smartphone in China.

Paying for purchased products inside a chatbot is common in Asian countries, but is it really save to entrust banking details to a messaging platform and share preferences and behavioral data? And who is responsible for the security of data along that supply chain? Customers, enamored with new technology, often don’t think about a possibility of a dark side or eventualities to do harm with it. An example for a chatbot gone terribly gone wrong is Microsoft’s Tay from 2016, which had to be taken down just hours after the launch, because it was trained with racist ideology by trolls. The incident shows that chatbots are only as good as the information they are fed with.Another example, that probably wasn’t intended by its creator Google, but which raised concerns about unauthorized hacking of voice-activated bots, was the hijacking of Google Home by Burger King. The Burger chain used a triggering of the smart speaker to promote their Whopper during TV primetime and brought the burger’s Wikipedia entry to millions US-homes. Obviously plenty of customers were upset, but at the same time the stunt became a trending topic on social media and raised the awareness for the brand.

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In the long view it is clear that – like all new technologies – chatbots will face some kind of backlash in their early days. Functionalities of bots are improving, customer interactions are lifted to a more sophisticated level and new ways of doing marketing are born, but let’s emphasize that complex questions with nuanced queries may change across areas and cultures and can require further thinking. This is why currently neither bots nor AI can completely replace human interactions, but who knows what technology will be capable of doing in their future trajectory?

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June 22 2017

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