Are chatbots the new apps? A lot of developers seem to think so. Facebook and Microsoft have both rolled out tools that make it easy for coders to create bots that you can chat with on Facebook Messenger, Skype, and other platforms including plain old SMS text messaging.
I wanted to get a better sense of what chatbots are, what they can do, and why we should use them. So for this episode of the LPX Show, I interviews Robert Stephens. He’s founder of the Geek Squad, he was chief technology officer for Best Buy after that company acquired Geek Squad, and now he’s co-founder of a new chatbot service called Assist.
Stephens says today’s chatbots are pretty simple. But eventually they could change the way we interact with businesses.
The idea is to let you interact with services without downloading and installing an app and without having to learn a new user interface. Just type to the bot the same way you would if you were sending a message to a friend.
You can use chatbots to get weather forecasts, book a car ride, receive news updates, or send flowers. As more developers adopt the platform, you may be able to do even more things. Chatbots are still in their infancy in the US and Europe. But they’re big in China, where hundreds of millions of people use the popular messaging service WeChat, and many interact with chatbots on a daily basis.
I still don’t get it… why?
Right now, there’s not really a lot of reason for most people to use chatbots. Typing out a conversation with a chatbot isn’t necessarily easier or faster than opening an app or web page and tapping a few buttons to order a pizza or read the latest news.
But they do make sense from a developer perspective… because they could solve a problem: app overload.
Right now you probably don’t want to download different apps for every news source, every airline, every restaurant, and every financial institution you use. But if you can get the same information without installing an app, just by opening a message window and typing a question, then maybe you’ll be more likely to interact with those institutions.
So developers are hoping that by jumping on the chatbot wagon, they’ll make it more likely that you’ll use their services.
Businesses also see promise in chatbots, because they could save companies money by handling a lot of customer requests that currently require a person.
The problem is that right now chatbots can be clunky and dumb. They might not be able to understand your questions. And you still might need to open a new chat window for every service you want to interact with… so instead of app overload, you might feel bot overload.
Will they get better?
There are a number of new technologies that could make chatbots smarter, faster, and more fun to use. Natural language processing techniques allow you to communicate with a bot without having to learn which words or phrases it can or cannot understand. Machine learning means that the more you (or other people) interact with a chatbot, the better it will get at anticipating your needs.
Eventually you might not need to go out of your way to send a message to a chatbot at all. Instead you could have a personal bot that works on your behalf, and which communicates with third-party bots as needed.
Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Google Now/Voice Search could basically act as your personal assistant: tell your assistant that you want to make travel plans, and it can automatically initiate a conversation with airline, hotel, and car rental bots asking if you’d like to confirm a price, book a reservation, or even make a payment.
But all of that only works if people actually want to use today’s chatbots… and right now that’s kind of a tough sell.
It can be fun to check one out for a few minutes. But the novelty usually wears off once you realize just how limited they are.
What are some chatbots I can try?
- 1-800-Flowers (Facebook Messenger)
- Assist (multi-platform)
- CNN (Facebook Messenger)
- HealthTap (Facebook Messenger)
- HP Print Bot (Facebook Messenger)
- Operator (Facebook Messenger)
- Poncho (multi-platform)
- Sequel Stories (multi-platform
- Spring (Facebook Messenger)
- Quartz (iPhone)
- Wall Street Journal (Facebook Messenger)
- Zork (Facebook Messenger)
Website Botlist.co is also creating a directory of chatbots for multiple platforms.
Where can I find more information about chatbots?
There’s been a lot of talk about bots recently. But here’s a good place to get started if you’re looking for a reading list to better understand what bots are and why everybody seems to be chatting about chatbots in 2016:
- Bots, explained (Recode)
- Bots won’t replace apps. Better apps will replace apps. (Dan Grover)
- Chat bots, conversation, and AI as an interface (Benedict Evans)
- Deep Learning for Chatbots, Part 1 (WildML)
- Why the Facebook chatbots are totally underwhelming (ComputerWorld)
- The humans hiding behind the chatbots (Bloomberg)
- What chatbots reveal about our own shortcomings (New York Times)
More podcasts about chatbots
- Why bots are the new big things, and what that means for ordering pizza (What’s Tech)
- Bots and Beyond (a16z)
You can help support the LPX podcast by making a donation to our Patreon campaign.