Are we ready for chatbots, the next technology wave?

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When the tech giant Microsoft unveiled its AI or artificial intelligence-powered bot on Twitter for a playful chat with the people in March, little did the tech giant realise that the twitterati would begin slamming the innocent bot with racist and offensive comments.

Launched as an experiment in “conversational understanding” and to engage people through “casual and playful conversation”, Tay was soon taken off Twitter by Microsoft engineers.

This was a soft experiment. But what if you can interact with a “chatbot” and send the AI-powered machine your financial requirements like you would text to your banker or chartered accountant in the near future?

Facebook wants this to happen and at its F8 global developer conference in April, the social networking giant unveiled AI bots right into its popular messaging app Messenger — to allow 900 million monthly active users on Messenger to interact with businesses and get updates from them.

“We think you should be able to text message a business like you would send to a friend and get a quick response,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the gathering.

Sounds fancy, but are chatbots the future of online businesses?

“Chatbots as a concept is going to evolve and become meaningful. They will create more opportunities for new companies to explode from nothing into prominence. They will create many new business strategy opportunities. In my opinion, they will play a large role in online business but not every role,” explains Tamara Gaffney, principal analyst, Adobe Digital Index.

“We as humans are still very visual beings so I see them [chatbots] as part of the digital experience. I also note that when we talk to a machine, we tend to figure out how to speak to it very quickly and tend to ask it more specific questions such as asking for a specific brand in order to guarantee that the response is meaningful,” Gaffney told IANS.

Digital is entering a new era where technology takes on human qualities. Examples of driverless cars, voice-activated homes and AI-powered chatbots fill our minds with joy, admiration and anticipation.

“In reality, our first experiences with ‘smart cars’ and ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) video systems has left us on the rollercoaster of great expectations followed by reliability and technical difficulties. Chatbots are likely to follow the same pattern,” Gaffney points out.

According to Facebook, there are over 50 million businesses on Messenger and the company is aiming to provide great valuable experiences for users and added value for businesses. Facebook has released a set of tools to allow software developers to create chatbots for the Messenger in partnership with businesses.

Chatbots have already been incorporated in some popular messaging services such as China’s Wechat. Tech giants like Microsoft and Google are also working to bring this technology to their platforms.

“Chatbots will bring the revolution in online and consumer-based industries which deal in the product and service sectors where millions of customers, buyers and sellers interact with limited sales or service executives to resolve their basic queries,” notes Anoop Mishra, a Lucknow-based digital marketing and social media strategist.

“It will help online businesses overcome the work load of customers or seller support division of the company, resulting in more customer satisfaction if the AI-powered bot is customised and tuned rightly,” Mishra told IANS.

Facebook has over 30 companies signed up to deploy chatbots on Messenger, including corporations like CNN, eBay, Burger King and Bank of America. “Many other companies are working on it and some of them have released their bots for testing purposes by evaluating its future worth,” says Mishra.

According to Microsoft’s Indian-born CEO Satya Nadella, “bots are the new apps.” But for Gaffney, “An app is such an isolated concept”.

She says that Apps in the future would be transparent. “They will reside as a ‘permission’ to use artificial intelligence on a particular device but eventually we won’t even know which app is driving our experience.”

It will eventually become seamless for us to use our voice to activate the chatbot.

“At first, it will seem clunky and ‘app-like’ but we are already seeing examples of apps that suddenly appear with a suggestion like how long it is going to take to get home without us even asking. So a chatbot that requires interaction will eventually be replaced by a chatbot that anticipates needs and delivers information as if it were reading your mind,” explains the Adobe analyst.

According to Mishra, it is too early to predict the serviceableness of chatbots in the industry because it is based on AI which works on the simulation of available words and sentences in a dictionary which is far behind human intelligence.

While AI is being integrated into our lives — with Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa — there appears a long road ahead for bots.

“Eventually, chatbots will be omnipresent but initially, they will be less than perfect. AI has many linguistic and sentiment-oriented programming requirements. Those requirements are going to be different in various regions of a country like India so a universal chatbot that covers the world with glory will be several years away,” Gaffney emphasises.

Till then, learn to respect chatbots like Microsoft’s Tay. These are machines but deserve some compassion so give them a chance to become part of your life.

Nishant Arora / IANS

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