The F8 of bots

Facebook’s F8 conference is where the company is showcasing its plans for the next year. Top of the list? Turning chat into a lucrative platform. Facebook’s Messenger app, and WhatsApp, process more than 60 billion messages a day. That’s huge. Crazy huge. Three times more than SMS.

Facebook is developing plans to turn all that chatter into cold, hard cash. There has been talk of directed messages, which appears to be turning chat into a platform for businesses to converse with consumers. Specifically, using chat to send adverts to chat users.

Although that’s just a rumour, there is another platform that will help business break into chat; bots.

One of the biggest announcements at yesterday’s conference was the new bots in Messenger. You can use them now! Bring up the search bar in Messenger, and type in a bot name. The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and 1–800-FLOWERS, are just some of the available options.

I tried out Poncho, a weather bot that, for some odd reason, is designed to act like a cat.

Part of my conversation with Poncho, the weather cat.

I feel most first-time bot users will have a similar experience as I did; unsure of yourself, you’ll stare at the blank chat screen, before awkwardly tapping out “Hi,” and pressing send.

Poncho responded with a few zzz’s.

This only served to further confound me. I wasn’t sure if maybe the bot has ‘gone to sleep’ at this late hour.

After a few moments of uncertainty, teetering on the brink of insanity, I send another message.

Poncho awoke from its slumber, apologized, and informed me it was a sleepy weather cat here to help me.

Okay. Well. “What’s the weather like tomorrow?” I asked.

Poncho inquired about my location, I provided it, and then it asked me to confirm if that was the location I wanted. It was, so I tapped yes. Then, instead of answering my question, it informed me that because I wasn’t a US resident, well, the service was essentially useless.

Which brings me to the crux of the issue; bots are essentially useless.

Sure, it’s cool that I can (theoretically) send a text to CNN asking for a news update, or to Poncho for a forecast update (I say theoretically, because likely all the bot services are limited to US use right now). The light conversational tone is fun (if a little eerie, especially when Poncho starts sending me those three dots to proclaim it’s typing, and then says “Totally.”)

But the whole exchange took maybe four minutes. Which may not seem like a long time, but when it takes me four seconds to open Google Now and check the weather, it really isn’t that convenient.

And for that matter, why should I even go to Messenger for updates on news and weather in the first place? Messenger is a platform for conversing with my friends (and is a massive battery hog). If I’m not either a) chatting with someone or b) trying to kill my phone’s battery as fast as possible, I don’t have any reason to open Messenger. And bots don’t bring enough function for me to change that stance.

Similar complaints can be levied against Kik, who released their bot store a few weeks ago. I tried out some of Kik’s bots, but they mostly amounted to typing ‘@aBot’sName’ and then a request. For example, ‘@Riffsy happy’ would tell the Riffsy bot to post a happy GIF in whatever chat I was in.

This ultimately failed in two ways. The first; it alerted the others in the chat of the incoming GIF before it even arrived (I love the element of surprise when it comes to GIFs in chat). The second; it didn’t give me the option to pick a GIF. It selects a random ‘happy’ GIF, and sends it.

I’ll admit these are nitpicky issues, but when you have a GIF collection as extensive and beautiful as I, you just have to pick your own. And if I knew what I was looking for (I almost always do), finding it myself is almost faster.

So, that’s it really. The F8 of bots is not a bright one, if the current crop of chatterbots are anything to go by. They’re fun to play with a little bit. But then you realize there are real people to talk to, and before long, you forget about Poncho the weather cat. I guess he goes back to sleep then, but I’m not familiar with the antics of weather cats.

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