What are bots? What is all the hype about this new piece of technology? Why are companies – especially corporations such as Facebook, Telegram and Kik – interested in them and why have they opened – or consider opening – their own ‘chat bot’ stores? And why do IT knowhows predict that bots will cause the final downfall of the apps?
First, let’s define bots. According to Wikipedia:
‘An Internet bot, also known as web robot, WWW robot or simply bot, is a software application that runs automated tasks (scripts) over the Internet.’
To put it simply, a bot is a piece of software or a script which can perform a set of repetitive tasks automatically and at much higher speeds than a human being.
Although bots can perform a variety of tasks – like calculating taxes, booking a restaurant or ordering stuff online – their main objective is communicating with the user and gathering information. This is why social networking services like Facebook, Telegram and Kik are extremely interested in researching and promoting this new piece of technology. Just like them – bots are all about communication.
And since both the defining feature and the final goal of bots is to act as ‘humanly’ as possible and converse as naturally as conceivable with real people, their design necessitates the expert use of Artificial Intelligence.
“… [Bots are] huge game-changer in terms of how people interact with businesses, goods and services and even with their friends online.” – Karen North, Professor at University of Southern California
For example, instead of employing a person to take pizza orders, a company can simply create a bot. Acting as a substitute for the actual person, the bot will be programmed to ask the customer all the necessary questions – like house address, pizza type, extra toppings etc. – through a messaging app and then forward all the details to the restaurant itself. This will result in a triple benefit: saving time and cutting expenses, while being absolutely sure that every order is error-free.
Even though the bots of today are capable of doing this and much more, they are still called ‘dumb’ bots – mainly because responding to basic commands efficiently and quickly is their limit, and possessing true artificial intelligence is not something that’s really around the block. But, then again, as (or rather if) people gradually start embracing the technology and learn to rely on this new form of communication, bots will get progressively smarter and should be much more adept at understanding natural language and perform accordingly.
Bots are not the ‘next big thing’. That is, yes, they’re big, but they’re far from new. In fact, bots have been around for more than five decades – but working in the background, their presence unfelt.
In 1966, a program called ELIZA passed the Turing Test. The Turing Test examines machines to judge whether they can return ‘near human intelligence’ answers or not. ELIZA was one of the first to do so. A user would give a comment, ELIZA would scan for a keyword it knew and then combine it with other words to give back a relevant answer.
To say the least, bots have progressed since then. You may have heard about some of them. Or, better yet, you may have heard from some of them.
Yes, bots have evolved to become your favourite voice activated assistants like Siri, Cortana and Google Now.
Google’s web crawlers are the earliest bots of any significance; and what significance! People who build and maintain websites and blogs should be well aware of the existence of Google’s bots, since they have pleaded for their mercy in no less than hundreds of occasions. The responsibility of Google’s bots is both simple and important: they are programmed to scan websites and judge their quality, in order to determine whether they have done enough to earn their place among the top of Google’s search results or not. Every webmaster and admin who is running or has run a website has probably been in a constant pursuit of pleasing Google’s bot for decades now, by constantly optimizing the website’s content to earn its approval. For example, this link is here specifically because of Google’s crawlers.
Another category of bots is made for the popular social network, Twitter. These bots, called Twitterbots, are essentially bits of code sent in the ‘mainline’ of Twitter’s servers. These bots are responsible for automatic tweeting at regular intervals, re-tweeting existing tweets, following users and replying to their tweets. These bots have been used for worthwhile purposes, but also for humorous intents and for sending spam.
Most recently, Microsoft created its own Twitterbot. Called Tay, it was meant to be highly intelligent. Its objective was to engage in communication with people by scanning their tweets and replying appropriately. However, the project turned into a fiasco as soon enough, Tay started tweeting offensive remarks when replying to topics such as ‘Hitler’, ‘Feminist’ and ‘Gender Equality’. Most people saw the whole thing as a joke and a PR gone wrong, but, even though the fault lied with the content of people’s personal tweets (from which Tay learnt), Microsoft’s Twitterbot raised some serious concerns regarding the whole ‘Bots are friendly and will understand humans’ philosophy.
Facebook is at the forefront of bot promotion. Just few months ago, it introduced the bot platform within its messenger app. The platform allows companies and businesses to create their own bots which should then be capable of replying with pictures, links and GIFs to ‘deliver a brand’s personality across’.
Telegram has its own Bot Store as well. It exhibits a host of bots which provide useful information. For example, the CNN bot delivers personalized news messages, the weather bot texts the weather, and a bot called Andy even teaches English!
Developers are very interested in advancements such as these, since the app market has reached its peak and is all but saturated. To many, in fact, bots seem like their best bet to replicate the hype and the success they reached in the golden era of the apps.
But, then again, both hype and success depends on customer interest as well. And, at the present moment, it’s virtually non-existent.
According to a recent survey, people spent 90% of their time using just 4-5 apps on their smartphone. The results should surprise no one, since many apps are designed to perform one and one function only – and booking a taxi, reserving a table at a restaurant or glancing at the schedule at your nearest cinema doesn’t exactly take you as much time as listening to this year’s summer hit for the seventeenth time this morning.
Nevertheless, as things stand, businesses have grown accustomed to spend lots and lots of money on developing handy apps in order to reach their customers. But developing and operating a local coffee app just so people can look up opening times and its menu means huge investments both in money and time.
“No one wants to have to install a new app for every service or business that they want to interact with.” – Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO.
Although, to say the least, it is advantageous to develop your own app and guarantee yourself prominent online presence, bots are here and they can serve alongside it, or even as the app’s cheaper alternative. For example, instead of spending so much time to operate the app for your local café, you can merely program a bot where people would have the option to ask for its opening and closing time, order the product of their interest or look up its menu – all by simply having a conversation with it.
Say, you ask this café’s bot “Till what time is X Café open?”. Judging by the relevant keywords, the bot should promptly answer: “X Café is open from 7am to 1am on weekdays. Would you like to book a table?” The bot doesn’t simply answer the question, but it also poses a new one.
Thus, the conversation should go on, with the bot providing relevant information to both the customer and the business. An effortless win/win.
To sum up: even though bots seem too underdeveloped to be able to replace apps or websites in the foreseeable future, they are already good enough to be able to work alongside them. And even more: bots should certainly render some categories of apps and websites useless very soon. No longer will we have to download an app just to book a hotel, call a taxi or order a pizza. All of this will be done by bots, because if your boyfriend can comply to your request to bring home the right pizza, well, so can a bot!
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