By Andrew Falconer
If you’re like most people, you probably spend a good part of each day online, jumping in and out of different apps and sites. You also probably spend a good amount of that online time talking with friends, family and co-workers. These actions are often related but separate—you talk through one platform, and access information and services in others. It’s a behavior pattern that has become second nature to us as mobile devices have become the center of our digital activities. As the devices—as well as the apps and services on them—become more capable, users are continually looking for ways to make these interactions more efficient. Chat bots are one channel companies can use to lower the friction between these interactions, bringing the services that people want into a more streamlined, context-rich experience.
It’s not what bots do, but rather how they do it that’s really exciting. And it’s this space that’s ripe for commercial expansion, a sweet spot for anybody working to make tools—like chat bots—that help people simplify their lives. Understanding what bots are and how they can work is the first step to building on this potential.
Bots are natural conversationalists—literally.
At their core, chat bots combine text or voice input with a layer of natural language processing (NLP). This means that you can talk to chat bots in everyday language, and they can talk to you back. The interaction is a conversation, but it’s one with a computer program that intelligently responds to questions by interpreting contextual meaning.
If this sounds a lot like artificial intelligence, that’s because it is. Humans ask chat bots questions or make requests. The bots interpret that language and access other available data, like location, previous user history or user preferences, to deliver smart solutions. This is what happens every time you ask Siri a question, and many times when you type a request into an online customer service chat window. Chat bots are one of the first mainstream forms of AI, and people may not always be aware they’re talking to them.
Bots are the new conversationalists of the digital world.
Because chat bots function as translators, they can easily navigate to and integrate with almost all digital places and services. This capability pairs well with contemporary user behavior. Most people are spending more time in fewer, preferred apps and sites, and most of these places are conversation based. You probably use at least one of these web-based services—popular platforms include WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and WeChat—as they’re increasingly dominating how people communicate online. Users are also making more complex requests, simply due to the evolution of the services themselves. By managing this complexity and bringing the services people use to the places where they’re already talking online, chat bots can cut down on the need to task-switch between different sites and apps, making the entire online experience much smoother.
Bots are so fundamental and flexible that they can easily layer over most interfaces.
Technology giants like Apple and Amazon are already doing this through technology like Siri and Echo, linking multiple physical platforms—the car, TV, phone, computer, etc.—through one bot that serves as a central hub for a user’s digital life. This means that consumers can now access information or services from almost anywhere, and because chat bots are language based, it often means not even having to operate the technology. Just say a command or request, and the bot takes care of it for you.
These capabilities will soon become part of an entire ecosystem of apps and services, as Amazon, Apple, Google, IBM and others open these platforms up to developers, allowing them to further experiment with NLP and other technologies. It’s likely that we’ll see a rapid growth of chat bot and text/voice-based interfaces as developers and companies discover novel ways to take advantage of this technology. Chat bots will be at the core of this making, bridging the realms of work and play. They are—and will continue to be—tools that help us accomplish common and complex tasks in context, and they will use increasingly natural human communication and interactions to get the job done.
Andrew Falconer is an Associate Partner and Development Lead at VSA, where he works to leverage a wide range of technologies in order to create meaningful user experiences. He welcomes the arrival of our future bot overlords.