Back in April, National Geographic launched a Facebook Messenger bot to promote their new show about the theoretical physicist's work and personal life. Developed by 360i, the charismatic Einstein bot reintroduced audiences to the scientific figure in a more intimate setting, inviting them to learn about the lesser-known aspects of his life through a friendly, natural conversation with the man himself.
This importance is reinforced by Jacqueline Payne, Customer Support Manager at Paperclip Digital, who says ‘Customer service isn’t a buzzword. But too many businesses treat it like it is. As a viable avenue from which to lower customer acquisition costs and cultivate a loyal customer base, chat bots can play a pivotal role in driving business growth.’
As I tinker with dialog systems at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, primarily by prototyping Alexa skills, I often wonder what AI is still lacking to build good conversational systems, punting the social challenge to another day. This post is my take on where AI has a good chance to improve and consequently, what we can expect from the next wave of conversational systems.
Chatbots such as ELIZA and PARRY were early attempts at creating programs that could at least temporarily fool a real human being into thinking they were having a conversation with another person. PARRY's effectiveness was benchmarked in the early 1970s using a version of a Turing test; testers only made the correct identification of human vs. chatbot at a level consistent with making a random guess.
Web site: From Russia With Love. PDF. 2007-12-09. Psychologist and Scientific American: Mind contributing editor Robert Epstein reports how he was initially fooled by a chatterbot posing as an attractive girl in a personal ad he answered on a dating website. In the ad, the girl portrayed herself as being in Southern California and then soon revealed, in poor English, that she was actually in Russia. He became suspicious after a couple of months of email exchanges, sent her an email test of gibberish, and she still replied in general terms. The dating website is not named. Scientific American: Mind, October–November 2007, page 16–17, "From Russia With Love: How I got fooled (and somewhat humiliated) by a computer". Also available online.
The main challenge is in teaching a chatbot to understand the language of your customers. In every business, customers express themselves differently and each group of a target audience speaks its own way. The language is influenced by advertising campaigns on the market, the political situation in the country, releases of new services and products from Google, Apple and Pepsi among others. The way people speak depends on their city, mood, weather and moon phase. An important role in the communication of the business with customers may have the release of the film Star Wars, for example. That’s why training a chatbot to understand correctly everything the user types requires a lot of efforts.
There are different approaches and tools that you can use to develop a chatbot. Depending on the use case you want to address, some chatbot technologies are more appropriate than others. In order to achieve the desired results, the combination of different AI forms such as natural language processing, machine learning and semantic understanding may be the best option.
1. AI-based: these ones really rely on training and are fairly complicated to set up. You train the chatbot to understand specific topics and tell your users which topics your chatbot can engage with. AI chatbots require all sorts of fall back and intent training. For example, let’s say you built a doctor chatbot (off the top of my head because I am working on one at the moment), it would have to understand that “i have a headache” and “got a headache” and “my head hurts” are the same intent. The user is free to engage and the chatbot has to pick things up.
The classic historic early chatbots are ELIZA (1966) and PARRY (1972). More recent notable programs include A.L.I.C.E., Jabberwacky and D.U.D.E (Agence Nationale de la Recherche and CNRS 2006). While ELIZA and PARRY were used exclusively to simulate typed conversation, many chatbots now include functional features such as games and web searching abilities. In 1984, a book called The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed was published, allegedly written by the chatbot Racter (though the program as released would not have been capable of doing so).