Last Updated: 16 Aug 2016

In 2016, you’ll hear a lot about chatbots. Bots aren’t anything new. They’ve been around for nearly the entirety of the Internet. Mostly, bots have been used for malicious reasons. Heck, a quick Wikipedia search reveals more about malicious purposes than anything else.

A bot is essentially a piece of code, or software, that runs automated tasks. Bots are often used for cheating in games, placing last-minute bids on auctions and lure people to porn sites. In other words, bots have an awful reputation.

Despite this reputation, AI chatbots are coming in 2016. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and many other companies are all focused heavily on them. Ahead of its BUILD conference this year, Microsoft famously unveiled Tay. Tay was/is a chatbot on Twitter designed to speak like a teenager. Users of the internet decided this was too good an opportunity to miss. They taught Tay to be a misguided, Trump loving, drug taking racist.

Most recent of all, at its annual F8 conference, Facebook unveiled its bot store for companies to build platforms for customer engagement and customer service.

Here are five essential things you need to know about the forthcoming chatbot invasion:

1. You don’t need to care about chatbots

Unless you’re a company, bots are part of the backend technology that makes AI systems intelligent and useful. Essentially, it’s just a case of a piece of software responding to what a customer is asking. Bots will let you book a hotel, manage your calendar, respond to a complaint or sort out your shopping amongst many possible applications.

2. They are the future of apps

Apps, they’re so 2008. Bots are where it’s at now. Who wants to use a clunky app, when they can use a bot (that likely won’t work all that well to begin with).

When we say chatbots are the future of apps, we mean they’re the future of AI systems. This means that bots will be at the core of Facebook Messenger, Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana and Google Now. Companies will need to plug into those platforms if they want to play or use their apps. This leaves a bit of a potential problem; companies like Facebook rely on the App Store to get their apps out there. As we know, the App Store is a big chunk of revenue for Apple, so if Facebook starts making people use Messenger bots instead of other apps, then they could well end up biting the hand that feeds them.

If anything, bots will remove the need to download an app you’d only use once. Or replace emailing a company with a complaint. Or, as many companies would probably love, replace customer service via the open-forum that is Twitter.

3. They will take over customer service 

Call me a cynic, but the best customer service comes from those who can go off script and one need look no further than customer service legends Zappos as a case in point. As is so often the case, when you deal with a customer service representative who’s following a scripted process, it’s usually frustrating and robotic. Having said that, apps have already had an impact on customer service enquiries.

One report by Sabio found that apps could lead to a reduction of contact centre traffic volumes by 10-15%. I have also heard of companies that have seen calls reduced by as much as 30%. Seeing as most of the time, people are looking for help or information; bots could play a role in that process.

However, beyond relatively simple interactions, I can’t see chatbots taking over from humans any time soon.

4. Chatbots all about artificial intelligence

If you say AI, what image do you get? No doubt something akin to Terminator’s Skynet and its end-of-world inducing self-awareness. Hollywood has conditioned many of us to be fearful of robots and thinking machines. By saying that we are talking to bots, perhaps it’s less scary and allows for a margin of error.

Without bots, AI wouldn’t be possible.

5. Bots have always been here

As we’ve already established, bots are not new. They are nearly as old as the web itself. However, rather than the spider bots, they are now being positioned as ways to interact with users.

Any Skype user that has ever had a suspicious, scantily dressed woman add them as a friend and engage them in conversation, has spoken to a bot before. The same happens when you go onto a company’s website, and a pop-up box comes up saying ‘Hi I’m Joe, is there anything you’re looking for today?’

The future of chatbots is to try and help us in our daily lives. How much impact they will have remains to be seen. For some tasks, they have the potential to be great, for others, they’ll be a gimmick.

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