Bots, virtual assistants and AI – welcome to the conversational age

Posted on 29/04/2016


chat and chatterbots

Don’t ignore the hype. Chatbots might be at a high point in the hype cycle, but they mean business.

So what exactly is a bot?

A bot is simply software that can complete small tasks for people. Like schedule meetings. Or answer questions. Or order you a taco. In the same way that Google is a search engine, bots are “do” engines that respond to typed/spoken queries.

For the basics on bots, check out this re:code write up.

Why now?

There are a few reasons:

  1. Significant growth in the popularity of chat apps
  2. Improvements in artificial intelligence systems that analyse and understand text/speech queries
  3. Desire for quicker, simpler delivery of information and completion of tasks – and fatigue from too many apps

Say you want check train times. You could search for the national rail website, click, enter your journey information and wait for the results to load. Google’s search results are already bringing information further up the journey. Increasingly, rich snippets – short information summaries – are shown alongside website links in the results. But you still have to pick the site, enter details and select the right train.

In this scenario, bots can reduce both the cognitive load on people and go on to book the train ticket.

What does this mean for me?

If you’ve ever used Siri, or Google’s voice search on your phone, you’re using already using a proto virtual assistant. The belief among the tech community is that chat conversations could become the new interface through which we conduct our affairs.

This would make it a HUGE deal. As one commentator put it:

“All five of the world’s dominant technology companies are vying to be the Google of the conversation age. Whoever wins has a chance to get to know us more intimately than any company or machine has before—and to exert even more influence over our choices, purchases, and reading habits than they already do.”

And this matters. We’ve already experienced the moral, legal and personal challenges of having one dominant global search engine. And if bots are driven by speech like the Amazon Echo’s Alexa then this could open the door to an endless flow of personal information between users and the company controlling the assistant.

Just wait until the conspiracy theorists get hold of this…

However, for the time being the tools and technology are still being finessed (as Microsoft demonstrated recently.)

If you’re curious to explore or, hey, even create your own chatbot, here are a few places to start: