How to Create Bots and Skills for Facebook Messenger and Amazon Echo

First of all, let’s explain what Bots and Skills are. A bot is a server application that can answer questions as though they are a real human — bots use chat messages to work and with Facebook this uses Facebook Messenger . A skill is similar but uses the human voice to communicate. The best example of the latter is Skills for the Amazon Echo. This Amazon Echo device is so far only launched in the US, but the expectation/rumour is that it will be released in the UK before the end of year. It’s less clear if and when it will be released in other European countries, owing to questions around translation.

Our goal has been to create a server app that works equally well as a bot and a skill. To some extent this is quite difficult, because the two systems work in different ways. When programming skills, you pre-define a set of things called Sample Utterances, Intents and List of possible data (Slots), which can act as variable parameters within Sample Utterances. You then respond on the server to intents, and complete further processing to ensure that you are interpreting the correct words. Bots don’t have these concepts, but we still use them in our server code. Both types need to process the data received.

For example, we can have a Sample Utterance like this:

My home station is {station}

where {station} is a slot defining an array of all possible London underground stations. Even though the echo checks the station name against possible slots, it will still pass on an unrecognised station name so that the server checks the name again. Additionally, we also perform a sounds-like check to get a number of possible stations. If the name is not recognised it will say this, but will suggest a number of possibilities. On the messenger version, we additionally accept the first 3 characters of the station name, and create a list of possible stations as buttons that you can press in the user interface. The only other complication involves the Skills you need to keep the conversation going. Amazon do not like you keeping the conversation open unless its clear that you are asking the user a question — you have to get the wording right and acceptable to them. (I think this paragraph needs to be clearer)

This is an exciting area because it opens up a totally new type of user interface for users and businesses. If the programmer gets it right, this User Interface can be far more effective, and easier to use, than desktop or Phone UI. In some circumstances, using voice is better. Take for example a stressful share dealing desk, where the pressure and time intensity is such that typing or using a mouse on a computer is too slow — the user can say, “Ask Footsie what are today’s highest risers”, and then “buy 100 grand of Arm Holdings”.You could potentially also set up voice defined alerts and “Ask Footise to alert me when any FTSE100 shares increases by one percent in a 10 minute period”. In this case, the input is via echo but the alert uses Facebook messenger.

There are a million possibilities for using this new paradigm for businesses. Business examples include stock control in warehouses and sales reporting when on the road. For every example where companies have started to use mobile phone apps, you’re likely to find a case where using a bot and/or skill will bring an improved user interface.

We’re working on solutions using Facebook Messenger and Amazon Echo or Alexa Voice service — these are free, and actually work much better than the systems that companies buy. The cost savings and increased usability of such a solution is massive.

At MakeBots.co, we’re working on some of the examples listed above for businesses. We are unable to provide additional details of this, as they are commercially-sensitive — this technology can leap frog competitors systems. However, the London Underground Train times for Facebook Messenger and Amazon Echo are available and are totally free to show potential customers what is possible. The bot/skill is called “Whens My Train” on Facebook, which you can initialise by following this url:http://makebots.co/mb/discover.html. On Echo, you go to the skills list at amazon.com(NB you need to have a US username on Amazon for this but anyone can get one) and search for “When is my train”. There is a also an app called Roger, which allows you to interact with Alexa (the Amazon Echo assistant), if you do not own the Amazon Echo device.

Anyone interested in such a service for their business please contact us at robin@makebots.co.

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