If you think chatbots are popping up everywhere these days, hold your horses: this is only the beginning. Chatbots are not only here to stay, they are destined to become part of the fabric of everyday life.
In this article, we will look at the various ways organisations are deploying chatbots for work and for pleasure. We will also consider what chatbots can do for you and your clients.
What is a chatbot?
In simple terms, a chatbot is a computer program that is capable of interacting with a user in a manner that is similar to human conversation. Chatbots draw from a database of responses in order to find information that aligns as closely as possible with the human input.
What’s driving the rise of chatbots?
The need for interactivity
People increasingly expect interactivity from their technology. Chatbots handily serve that need.
The world is awash with data. Experts talk of data lakes. Chatbots help make sense of all the data in a user-friendly way.
Younger generations grew up with devices. When it comes to making a booking or researching a purchase, people are generally more used to dealing with their smartphones than speaking with a representative. That doesn’t mean that person-to-person interaction is dead, just it’s not the default way of doing things for many of us.
Chatbots solicit information in a non-threatening, low-friction way. Conversational marketing is a whole genre in and of itself. Take a look at the rise of Drift. Chatbots get people to talk.
Easy to talk to
Although voice search remains in its infancy, people will become increasingly comfortable talking rather than tapping into their devices. The advent of Alexa, Siri, and Cortana has confirmed the suspicion that people like to chat.
The technology is here
The core technology is well developed. In April 2017, Facebook announced it had more than 100,000 developer bots available on its Messenger platform. Solutions such as Chatfuel and ManyChat make building chatbots easy.
Worried about GDPR and your chatbots? Information solicited by a chatbot is widely considered to be consensually given. Nobody is forcing you to offer up your data.
What about chatbots in the workplace?
Businesses are embracing voice-activated assistants and chatbots. A recent survey by Spiceworks of 500 IT pros in organisations across North America and Europe found 40% of bigger businesses expect to implement AI chatbots or intelligent assistants by 2019. Almost one-third of organisations surveyed already had such solutions in place or were planning for them within the year. Voice-activated typing topped the list of tasks supported by chatbots and AI assistants.
Consider your own organisation for areas in which chatbots and intelligent assistants can speed up tasks. From chatbots that answer those questions that HR departments get asked repeatedly to virtual assistants that tackle frontline IT queries, the applications are limitless.
“With IoT and smart machines flooding into the network, IT service management administrators are becoming increasingly challenged by the lack of resources available to handle the many requests that are flooding in as a result,” writes Marcel Shaw of IT software firm Ivanti. “Technical support personnel are still involved with too many requests and incidents, handling them on a one-to-one basis. For better or worse, we have to face the fact that in the future, human intervention for ANY request or incident will not be sustainable. Therefore, we will see many organisations turn to chatbots with AI capabilities as a way to more efficiently handle frontline IT support calls.”
Keeping an open mind
The business case for chatbots is strong, but how do you make them work for you and your company?
Start by making a list of all the tasks in your organisation that are often repeated and/or take longer than is ideal. Be as specific and as exhaustive as possible:
- IT queries
- Data entry
- Calendar management
- Team collaboration
- Note taking
- Project management
- Quote generation
- Sales content recommendations
- Producing company newsletters
Then put yourself in the shoes of your customers and those of your clients’ clients, and brainstorm all the different areas that might benefit from a chatbot.
Once you have your list, take it to your team and to your clients and whittle your ideas down to a few earmarked for serious exploration.
Be narrow in your initial scope. “No brain (human, or computer) is good at drinking from a firehose on day one and both brains need to be given appropriate learning space”, wrote Adrian Bridgewater in a recent article for Raconteur.
Stay realistic in your expectations as you start to develop your AI bot.
Going off the rails
It’s certainly not all sweetness and light with chatbots and AI assistants.
Chatbots still have a lot to learn. Almost 60% of respondents to the Spiceworks study pointed to examples of where their workplace intelligent assistants had misunderstood their request.
Indeed, trying to coax Alexa into saying crazy things is something of a parlour game these days.
In 2016, such hijinks went further than Microsoft bargained for when the online community succeeded in turning the software giant’s freshly spawned bot, Tay, into a free-wheeling, sharp-shooting misogynist with unashamed extremist leanings.
“The more you talk the smarter Tay gets”, Microsoft boasted. When it comes to artificial intelligence, be careful what you wish for.
Here are some sensible ground rules:
Make sure they know it’s a chatbot
Remember it’s not normally a good idea to trick a chatbot user into thinking she is interacting with an actual human being. Be transparent if your chat platform is being managed by bots and not a real person. People like to know who they are talking to.
Watch out for the uncanny valley
Don’t try to pass off your bot as a human in other ways. A robot that looks almost but not quite human can induce unsettling, unpleasant feelings in people: the “uncanny valley” phenomenon.
Be patient with the chatbot and your users
Levels of user frustration with chatbots remain high. But experts insist the more we train the bots, the smarter and more in sync with our actual needs they will get. Be patient.
Chatbots for home and for play
The applications outside of the office are dizzying and touch on every aspect of your personal life.
Netflix-style chatbots, such as And Chill, offer up movie recommendations based on your viewing habits.
Once you have settled on your film, let a chatbot suggest dinner based on what you have in the fridge, or use a bot on the go to direct your supermarket shop.
Can’t sleep at the end of the day? Assuage your insomnia by messaging with Insomnobot-3000, a nocturnal chatbot provided by mattress company Casper.
Wake up tired and miserable? Sync up with Woebot for some practical advice designed to boost your energy and improve your mood.
Chatbots can help with your personal finances too. The fintech sector is pushing bots to promote use of its products and services. The US credit score provider Credit Karma recently invested heavily in developing chatbot technology.
Want to buy and sell Bitcoin but not sure how to go about it? Ben will teach you how Bitcoin works before you get down and dirty with cryptocurrency transactions.
Embrace the future
It turns out that people like to interact with their machines. Couple the interactive appeal of a chatbot with the deep learning of AI, and tomorrow’s world will be upended by the ability of machines to assist us in just about every task, whether business, domestic, or pleasure.
“The future is already here it’s just not evenly distributed,” William Gibson said. Get in on the future today, and work out how to future proof your life and your business for intelligent AI-driven conversation.