The Past, Present and Future of Bots

This is a series of blog posts from assignments for a class I’m taking — “Leading Trends in Information Technology”. The content has been slightly modified for a blog post.

Bob O’Donnell, in his “Post Device Era” talk, mentioned that along with the automotive industry and voice controlled UI, Bots is an exciting field, ripe with opportunities. Back when I was a kid, I had heard of Bots only as crawlers, auction bots, to execute DDoS attacks, etc. Recently, Bots have made a comeback through chatbots. I wanted to further explore the field of Bots.

What are they? Source: Github

What are Bots?

In general, a Bot is software that automates any task. They are useful because they can perform tasks much quicker than a human can. The largest use of Bots are as web crawlers.

In this context, we are talking about chatbots — Bots that we have a conversation with. They are a type of intelligent agent. An intelligent agent is defined as “Long-lived software programs which act autonomously, monitor, and react to the environment, and communicate and collaborate with other agents and users.” [1]. In simpler terms, a bot is a software program which automates tasks that one would normally do, e.g. setting an alarm or ordering a pizza. A chatbot achieves this by conversing with you.

History of chatbots

Chatbots were originally called “Chatterbots” — a term coined by Michael Mauldin in 1994 [2]. However, the concept of chatbots is much older and originated in the 1950s. It can be traced back to Alan Turing’s famous article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” from which the turing test was born. Most chatbots until recently, have in some sense tried to pass the turing test.

In 1966, ELIZA, a computer program that could seemingly hold a conversation with a human was revealed. ELIZA works by recognizing keywords and then outputs a pre-programmed response for that keyword. This method has since been used in chatbots, till a few years ago. ELIZA was the first of many chatbots. PARRY, RACTER, and ALICE were some of the early chatbots that were developed. These chatbots aimed to emulate a conversation with a human; they tried to be a person you can converse with.

Is the Botfather going to make a bot that you can’t refuse? Source: Telegram

With the advent of the Internet, chatbots were no longer just the domain of Computer Scientists and Researchers. SmarterChild was the first chatbot to have widespread consumer usage. It launched on all the popular IM platforms, and quickly gathered a large number of users. One could converse with SmarterChild, search for information, or get weather updates from a weather service. However, most of the responses were programmed manually and service contracts had to be negotiated with service providers. SmarterChild’s parent company ended up being acquired by Microsoft in 2006.

After SmarterChild, chatbots floundered and were not seen in the mainstream till a few years ago.

The Resurgence of chatbots

In the last few years however, chatbots have become more about accomplishing tasks for you, using conversation as a medium. The relationships aim to be transactional rather than personal. You tell the tacobot on slack to order a taco for you, and a taco is on the way.

This resurgence was brought about by a culmination of many improvements in various technologies. Increase in processing power has helped improve Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities. New methods like Deep Learning have allowed for better accuracy in NLP. This has led to chatbots better understanding what is being said, without having to be explicitly programmed. The open web and APIs have allowed services to be integrated easily.

However, the biggest factor that has brought about the resurgence of chatbots is the adoption of messaging as a platform. Recently, messaging apps have seen more number of users than social networks. Messaging apps also offer a more personal, conversational platform for users.

The Future

With companies like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google driving the effort behind the current wave of chatbots, they are here to stay. These companies believe that chatbots are the future. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced at their Build Conference that the future is “conversation as a platform”. Other companies like Kik, Telegram, and Slack have even set aside funds to encourage developers to make Bots.

The increasing use of these messaging platforms, and sustained efforts to push Bots will ensure that people use them. However, the “killer app” for Bots has yet to be found — one that will drive mass adoption. The “killer app” for Bots will bring the golden age of apps to a close. Bots will act as augmentation to humans that will help make our lives easier and better.

Imagine having a conversation with your phone and asking it for the best place to have dinner. Wait, no need to imagine it! The future is here — What a time to be alive!

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