Why we care about chatbots

“Hello! My name is Jenny. What can I help you with today?” Many of us have been met by a greeting similar to this when choosing to chat with customer service on a website. The difference between today and let’s say two years ago, is that today there’s a very real possibility of Jenny not being human.

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When was the last time you chatted with a customer service agent? Was it last month? Maybe last week? Or yesterday? It is a well-known fact that we rely more and more on technology in today’s society. We use it for all kinds of different things, like ordering food or buying soap in bulk. We’ve also been given an open communication link to the companies we buy stuff from. It’s become an expectation that most companies (at least the larger ones) have customer service centers that are available when it suits the customer, and we as customers have become quite accustomed to this arrangement. So what would happen if all electronic devices were to stop functioning today. You would have no way of communicating with the rest of the world, not even to tell the customer service agent that the soaps you ordered in bulk smell of lemon, but you meant to order lavender. And that would mean that you would have to spend the rest of your life smelling like a lemon. This is a pretty scary thought, right?

Thankfully, we’re not in that situation. Quite the contrary, actually. We live in a time where communication has opened up the world, and now takes us mere seconds to inform a customer service agent that the lemon soaps need to be returned… You’d think that this way of communicating would have prepared us for the introduction of chatbots, which in some ways, can be seen as an extension of the immediate communication style we’ve already adopted. But it’s a human instinct to fear what we don’t understand, and chatbots aren’t a common experience in our everyday lives — yet.

Over the last 15 months I’ve observed people create and interact with chatbots. Some with skepticism, some with glee, but most with a sense of reverence of where communication is heading. The most interesting thing I’ve observed is how attached people get to the chatbots. Not just the people who spend hours training and building them, but the people interacting with them as well. It might seem weird, but like someone I talked to recently said, “I know I’m talking to a chatbot, and I know it has no feelings, but I still say thank you.”

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So I ask another question, would you still say thank you if you thought you were talking to a human, but found out midway through the conversation that it was actually a chatbot? Most people would see this as a huge breach of trust, and they would have no problem telling the chatbot, in caps lock, how upset they are. This is not an unusual reaction when a person does something that offends us. The difference is that a chatbot has no concept of anger. You may scream and curse, but the chatbot will not know that you are angry. It might say something that makes it seem like it’s sympathetic, but it’s still a machine trained to respond to input.

And that’s what makes chatbots so interesting. They bring out the human in us. We laugh when they tell jokes, we become frustrated when they give the wrong answer, we are shocked when they surprise us, and we beam with pride when we as chatbot builders see that people respond to them in a positive way.

So why do we care so much about a computer program? My theory is that chatbots represent potential. Every day there’s an article in a newspaper talking about the threat of technology and artificially intelligent chatbots, and how they will soon take over all our jobs and we’ll have nothing left to do. What these articles fail to mention is the huge potential that this technology has to offer.

Chatbots can help people with a wide variety of issues. Teens with self-esteem problems can reach out to a chatbot created by professionals, instead of browsing the world wide web for answers that can hurt more than they help. New mums can ask their questions to a chatbot, created for the purpose of helping new mothers with the thousands of questions they have, instead of missing out on important information, because humans simply don’t have the time to answer them all. And a new generation can become older and have someone to communicate with when they simply want to chit chat late in the evening.

The potential is endless, so how can we not care?