I mean who needs robotic kitties?!
(Urm it’s chat bots…Oh…Nevermind!)
In the last 24 hours alone, 5 separate very smart people in the business community have asked me “what’s the deal with chat bots?!.” They inquired with the urgency we all experienced when first trying to understand Snapchat. Specifically, why are chat bots are thing now all of a sudden, will they kill mobile apps and when will the hype end. So here are some answers, in as bullshit-free a way as I can present them.
Why now with the bots?
Because humans and computers want to speak the same language.
Humans have thumbs, fingers, eyes and ears to tap, type, read and listen. This has given humans a temporary advantage over computers in communication. Computers have been able to communicate with each other by pulling and pushing data between each other. Human programmers code this “conversation” using Application Programming Interfaces (APIs.)
A chat bot presents a Human Programming Interface (HPI?) for computers to communicate with humans. It levels the playing field.
There are other geeky reasons that programmers like bots because they let them code things simply (“atomically” in geek speak) and isolate types of computer programs to types of uses. Programmers prefer programming bots to apps because they have to worry even less about the underlying software in the same way they like using virtual servers in tools like Docker rather than dealing with underlying hardware. However, I’m going to credit the cultural zeitgeist and technical evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) with the recent popularity in conversational interfaces that bots represent.
Will bots kill apps?
No they won’t but apps will shrink and live inside chat bubbles.
We liked using apps better than we liked navigating websites because they gave us exactly what we needed to do some specific thing, from booking travel to interacting with our friends and whittle away our spare moments on casual games. Each app presented a distinct context.
The three most important factors when building user interfaces are: context, context, context
We like using bots better than we liked using apps because we don’t have to do the thinking about matching a need we have for something with the appropriate app. We can simply go to a messaging platform, enter a message as easily as messaging our friends and a bot “friend” responds with something relevant. Even better if the bot can do something for us. Better yet if the bot can anticipate we needed something and just present it to us or handle it.
A bot may be able to understand a conversation between friends making plans and send one of them a ride to meet the other or suggest gift ideas for the occasion. So, eventually, bots will be able to program our behaviors with contextual suggestions as we programmed computers to perform tasks with explicit input. Soon, you will just need to say “yes” to these contextual suggestions and eventually, perhaps just think “yes.”
When will the hype end?
On or before January 9th, 2017 (Monday.) Media hype eventually fades.
Innovation, however, continues. Bot stores are being born in and around messenger platforms that are just as exciting as the app stores. Which bots will be the Tinder, Angry Birds, Instagram and Evernote hits of app store lore?
Taking a broader view, human-computer interaction will evolve in three phases.
We are now in the conversational age (chat bots.) Next, comes the immersive age (VR/AR) and finally, the intuitive age (implants)
Conversational interfaces are not only restricted to chat bots inside messengers. Amazon’s Echo, a voice based conversational device that summons Alexa, Amazon’s bot assistant, is a great example of a transitional ancestor bridging the evolution between conversational and immersive ages. It’s more immersive because unlike Apple’s Siri or Google Now, which live in our mobile phones, attached to us, you can speak to Alexa from across the room.
The media loves connecting the dots around certain points in evolution and naming them a trend — web, web “2.0” (shudder) social media, on-demand economy, and now “AI” and “bots.” Those of us in technology see it more like the constant re-arranging and improvement of building blocks. The same type of interface we used to dispatch our ideas on instant messengers a decade ago is being re-purposed to dispatch our intents to virtual “friends” in the bot space now (meow!)
See also: A Rising Tide Lifts All Bots