Other than the self-driving car, it’s hard to think of a technology around which there is more buzz than the chatbot. Chatbots, we are told, are set to revolutionize everything, but especially, e-commerce, banking, health-care and education. Just as the app took online activity by storm and has been adopted by everyone, the chatbot is going to do the same.
Yet we’ve been hearing this for some time.
What is the actual state of affairs? Has the chatbot revolution arrived?
One useful place to start in answering this question is with Microsoft’s Bot Directory. Here dozens of interesting bots are featured and playing around with a few really does make you see the possibilities. Although none of them yet really grab me as essential, I can see the value of most of these bots, especially those that help in organising my time and motivating me to exercise. This directory is now closed to new bots and here we get the first hint that bot development might really be moving at a fast speed: there are too many new bots for the directory to keep up.
Another directory, far more comprehensive, can be found here and again, if you want to get a flavour of what’s possible, it’s fun to play with these. But again, too, this list is already behind the times.
The big companies step up their chatbot activity
It’s the big players who are likely to drive forward the use of chatbots in modern culture. And where are they on the issue? The answer is that we are now seeing definite enthusiasm for, and commitment to, chatbot development from them.
I think it would be fair to say that Apple’s Siri is a voice-activated chatbot. And if so, then the support given to Microsoft users, Amazon users and Google users by Cortana, Alexa and Assistant respectively, show a quantum leap forward in this kind of software.
True chatbots with a more focused role to assist client engagement with a library, or health care organization, say, are spreading like fire on petrol. One massive stimulus to this was Facebook’s decision to allow bots on Messenger. This has seen around 100,000 developers create 100,000 bots for the platform.
Millions of chatbots spring up across the world
The chabot development community is blossoming exponentially. It really is like seeing green shoots emerging from a desert after rainfall. Thus, last year, Pandrabots reported that it had 225,000 developers, 285,000 chatbots created and three billion interactions.
I believe most of these were short-lived bots, whose purpose was primarily commercial. But there are now long-lasting chatbots delivering excellent results in the education sector, in assisting users of library catalogues, in counselling and health care.
Do you need a chatbot?
I’m an author with twenty books published, so whilst not exactly typical, I could be representative of a type of small business. Have chatbots become useful to me? To explore this further, I went to Snatchbot, where you can create your own bot for free.
I found it very easy to create a basic bot and — this is crucial — attach it to my Facebook readers’ page. Now, every time a reader sends me a message, they engage with the bot. Of course, I don’t want to alienate anyone, so the first thing the chatbot does is give out my email if the reader wants to contact me in person. But it then guides the conversation to steer the reader to the book that might most suit them.
At first, I made several blunders in the logic of the conversation. They were all very easy to fix, however, and also as I saw the kinds of interactions that readers came up with, I added on new layers to the conversation.
Practically, it doesn’t achieve an enormous gain compared to using Messenger in its usual way. But I’m very happy with my bot and will certainly keep it. The best gain is that I get a chance to project a certain amount of humour and passion for SciFi through the bot.
And I think for businesses, this is an under-appreciated aspect of chatbots. Chatbots are not just tools to connect users to the information they want (and they are much better tools for this than FAQ pages on websites), they are an opportunity to promote your brand. If you are a bank, your chatbot will be sombre, accurate, polite. If you are a health care organisation, your bot will be sympathetic. If you are an entertainment organisation, your bot will be lively, funny, cheeky even.
So yes, 2017 will be seen as the year of the chatbot. Not just because the large companies are using them, but because it’s now really simple to create your own and hundreds of thousands of people are already doing so.
Source: Chatbots Magazine