What are Bots and Why are They Important?

June 10, 2016

Imagine this: You’re booking a hotel room online for a trip with your family. You go through the usual steps: logging in (with Facebook credentials), picking the time/date/room, and entering payment information. No sooner than you are done you get a notification from Facebook confirming the purchase and offering you a receipt.

This chat stays active throughout your stay, automatically checks you in and out, offers in room food selections, provides you an opportunity to ask for anything you need, and directs you to review your experience. All this happened thanks to their new Facebook Messenger customer service bot activated by logging in. Does this seem invasive to you? Are you ready for this type of interaction? These type of bots are already out there and gaining in popularity and usage.

Over the last few months, bots have been a bigger and bigger part of the conversation in tech circles. It seems that they are everywhere and getting brighter every day. Tech giants like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are investing major capital in out “botting” each other in order to provide unique experiences that anticipate their customer’s needs. In fact, rumor has it that Apple’s WWDC (World Wide Developer Conference) on June 13th will be focused on their bot, which you probably just know as “Siri”.

What is a bot?

Bots are pieces of human-like interaction software that integrate into your existing apps. It can perform automated tasks, such as ordering food, telling you the weather, or setting an alarm. From a user perspective, this is awesome because it means you don’t have to install yet another piece of software to increase functionality. Bots tend to get smarter with each new version and many are able to learn new skills based on interactions with their users (deep learning).

These bots can be classified in two different categories: action based and intelligence based. Action based are services like IFTTT or Zapier where tasks are performed around a defined event. An example of this would be that every time you save a link to Instapaper, you would also tweet the link and save it to a Google Docs file. Intelligence based bots are like Apple’s Siri where questions are asked, answered, clarified, an action is performed, and could be followed up on with another action. I could ask Siri to play my favorite songs playlist on Spotify and she would ask me what speakers I would like to use. I could then ask her to add the lyrics (understanding context) to a new Evernote note.

Why are bots important?

As technology advances, so does the way we interact with it. This gives brands the opportunity to craft the experience of the user to be much more “human”. You simply send and receive messages with the bot, just like you do with any of your friends. They answer your questions quickly, 24 hours a day, and always on-message for the brand.

We’re moving away from command input interfaces (like DOS in the 80’s) and graphic interfaces (like Windows 95/Mac OS) to web based apps that are platform agnostic and bots/conversational UIs. Hardware is beginning to make the adjustment focusing on conversational devices like the Amazon Echo and the new Google Home.

What bots are part of my everyday life?

The easy answer is Siri and Google Now. Our phones have become our primary way of communicating and gathering information. These bots simplify the action of asking a question and provide information concisely when they do work. Yes, I said when. Even with how advanced they are they still have a long way to go to answer every question asked of them.

As mentioned earlier, services like Facebook M (and the newly opened bot-API) are becoming successful in their own right. They take a different approach to the way they interact with the user because they are a combination of computers doing the easy parts and humans doing the more complex tasks. Often this is a seamless experience and the user never knows the difference.

And then there are bots that are obviously computers that have been packaged into something else. The Quartz iPhone app was a unique experience when it first launched and got a lot of attention. It is a news service through feeds you your news through chats. Even though I think having only one story at a time isn’t the best user experience and personally prefer the traditional news feed, I give them credit for trying something different.

Taking over the world?!?

Techcrunch in “Forget Apps, Now the Bots are Taking Over”:

“Messaging bots offer benefits, as well. Bots de-clutter our mobile experience. Bots send us a message when we need to know or respond to something, but stay invisible otherwise. Bots reside in the cloud and upgrade themselves with new functionality — without any user action. Bots can interact with one other and can be chained together to perform a series of actions in sequence. Bots can supervise other bots, leading to bot hierarchies.”

Wait… What?!? This sounds like the intro to almost every sci-fi robot movie where they take over the world! Should we be worried? The answer is pretty hotly debated right now. Leaders in the scientific and technology world like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking are warning of the dangers of artificial intelligence. I think the jury is still out on if the machines will rise up or not. There I do know one thing for sure… I’m safe as long as I have the power to throw my iPhone across the room when Siri gives me the wrong answer.

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