Wed, Sep 21, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Why ‘chatbots’ are the talk of the town

Software programmed to interact with humans is hot property in Silicon Valley, with potential benefits for businesses, consumers — and even the bereaved

By Stuart Dredge  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain people

Chatbots are the new apps, Microsoft chief executive officer Satya Nadella said earlier this year.

He was not the first senior technology executive to make this claim.

“Threads are the new apps,” Facebook’s head of messaging products David Marcus said in January, referring to the threads of conversation in apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

Nadella and Marcus see “chatbots” — computer programs that you interact with by “chatting,” for example in threads in messaging apps — as an important new human/machine interface. Both of their companies have launched tools to help developers create these bots, and from April to this month, more than 30,000 were made for Facebook Messenger alone.

Chatbots are not a new technology. The shopping and breaking news bots in Messenger’s ancestors are chatbots, such as artificial intelligence (AI) “psychotherapist” Eliza from the mid-1960s and Parry, a bot mimicking a human with paranoid schizophrenia, in the early 1970s. In 1972, they were thrown together for a bot-to-bot conversation, which Parry quickly steered down a rabbit hole of corrupt horse racing gambling.

Since 1991, the chatbot equivalent of the Olympics has been the annual Loebner Prize, which challenges bots to converse with responses indistinguishable from a human’s. Questions this year included: “What does Brexit mean?”; “Would you like a cup of tea?”; “What do you know about the Turing test?”; and — a neat touch — “Do you dream of electric sheep?”

However, the chatbots on Facebook Messenger and other apps, such as Kik, Telegram, Slack and WeChat, are not dreaming of electric sheep. Rather than trying to pass for human, they are unashamedly artificial, and focused entirely on providing information and/or completing tasks for the humans they interact with. If they have views on Brexit, they are not letting on.

Talking to these chatbots works just like messaging a friend, once you have added them as a contact. Kik has its own “bot shop” to browse bots in categories, including entertainment, lifestyle and games, while business messaging app Slack has a “brilliant bots” list for its corporate users.

Expectations of these bots are high, and immediate. As veteran developer and Twitter hashtag inventor Chris Messina wrote in his blog in January: “2016 will be the year of conversational commerce. You and I will be talking to brands and companies over Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack and elsewhere before year’s end, and will find it normal.”

“I’m less interested in whether a conversational service is provided by a human, bot, or some combination thereof. Over an increasing period of time, computer-driven bots will become more human-feeling, to the point where the user can’t detect the difference, and will interact with either human agent or computer bot in roughly the same interaction paradigm,” he added.

This vision — text chatting to brands and companies, as well as to friends and family — is what is driving the chatbot excitement this year.

“I’m excited about conversation as an interface, because for certain applications, it feels like the most natural way to engage with a product or service,” said Danny Freed, founder of a start-up called Joy, whose chatbot helps people to track their moods.

It might also be accessible to a wider range of people. Pete Trainor is director of human-centered design at Nexus, a digital agency that created an AI assistant called Luvo for the bank RBS. He is enthusiastic about chatbots reaching people who might struggle with other digital products.

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