The Future of Chatbots

So what’s the deal with chatbots? There’s a chatbot arms race going on between major technology companies since 2016. We imagine the future to be like how we see it in Iron Man. Facebook Messenger, Kik, Slack, Amazon Echo have all released their own bot platform in hopes to take a slice of a major technology platform of the future; however, the effort still hasn’t bare fruit and 2017 becomes another year where the chatbot hype has been completely underwhelming. Does that just mean chatbots aren’t ready yet? Will they ever be?

I worked on a chatbot for an internship at Microsoft for four months and I had the opportunity to work closely with teams from Bing AI & Research and Microsoft Teams, Microsoft’s new chat-based workspace. I believe that the future holds a place for conversation as a platform, and I want to share my thoughts on the current barriers to chat and possible solutions.

Artificial Intelligence

The main blocker from advancements in this field is that with the current technologies we have, we still cannot replicate a customer service representative with AI like the ones we are used to on the phone. However, advancements to AI are growing rapidly, and it’s safe to assume that a future where we communicate with AI for everyday tasks is not too far away.

Discoverability and Habit

People aren’t familiar with conversation as a platform yet. When I want to order pizza, my first intuition isn’t to open a chat platform. I would go search google or visit their website. In fact, most people won’t even know that ordering pizza through a chatbot is possible. Right now, the only way to install a bot is to go on the bots store of the platform i.e. Slack, Discord, MSTeams to search for the bot you want or visit the website for that bot. I think the best solution to improve discoverability is like how Google did app indexing where you can find mobile applications through Google search. If search engines provide you with available chat apps or skills for personal assistants like Siri or Cortana, people will be more likely to use them.

Good for Streamlining, Bad for Browsing

Chatbots are good for streamlined experiences. Imagine a Starbucks chatbot where you can say, “Can I get a grande soy chai latte.” It will automatically charge you, and the nearest Starbucks will make your drink for you to pick up. This is great for a power user who goes to Starbucks often and knows what to order. They won’t need to plough through a bunch of user interface and buttons that a normal phone app would have.

If you don’t know what you want, this is where a chatbot falls short. Many platforms have display cards so when the user asks, “What’s on the menu?” You can show them a carousel of 10 featured drinks or the categories of drinks you sell. However, this is pale in comparison with a fullscreen menu from a website or a mobile app.

Thrives in Group Conversations

We have already seen success in bots on Slack. People install bots like BirthdayBot, Growbot, and Polly to their teams as extensions to the existing platform. These bots bring a social aspect to the team. They are fun and can even be useful; like the PayPal bot that can transfer money to other team members. These bots tend to also be less demanding in terms of artificial intelligence allowing them to be developed much easier with the tools we have today. I believe Facebook Messenger and similar platforms can find success the same way by opening up third-party bots in group conversations.

Platform and Environment

I have still yet to convince myself that bots on platforms like Facebook messenger will take over. It doesn’t feel natural. I believe that the best bots are the ones that are baked into a personal assistant like Siri or Google Assistant. There have already been steps towards this with Sirikit, Alexa Skills Kit, and Cortana Dev Center. These SDKs have yet to mature, and improvements will need to be made for the community to take it seriously. Nonetheless, I do believe that one day saying “Ok Google, order pizza from Papa John’s.” will be the natural way for people to order pizza.

Bots in its current state may seem like a completely failed attempt on revolutionising the mediums of which we interact with vendors, but there are some talented people and companies like Microsoft and IBM trying to make a breakthrough in this domain. Don’t be surprised that in the next few years, bots will surface again, better than ever.

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