NBC Politics Bot allowed users to engage with the conversational agent via Facebook to identify breaking news topics that would be of interest to the network’s various audience demographics. After beginning the initial interaction, the bot provided users with customized news results (prioritizing video content, a move that undoubtedly made Facebook happy) based on their preferences.
Open domain chatbots tends to talk about general topics and give appropriate responses. In other words, the knowledge domain is receptive to a wider pool of knowledge. However, these bots are difficult to perfect because language is so versatile. Conversations on social media sites such as Twitter and Reddit are typically considered open domain — they can go in virtually any direction. Furthermore, the whole context around a query requires common sense to understand many new topics properly, which is even harder for computers to grasp.
Other companies explore ways they can use chatbots internally, for example for Customer Support, Human Resources, or even in Internet-of-Things (IoT) projects. Overstock, for one, has reportedly launched a chatbot named Mila to automate certain simple yet time-consuming processes when requesting for a sick leave. Other large companies such as Lloyds Banking Group, Royal Bank of Scotland, Renault and Citroën are now using automated online assistants instead of call centres with humans to provide a first point of contact. A SaaS chatbot business ecosystem has been steadily growing since the F8 Conference when Zuckerberg unveiled that Messenger would allow chatbots into the app.
How far are we from building systems with commonsense? One often-heard answer is: not in the near future, while the realistic answer is: we don’t know. Last year, I spent some time trying to build a system that can do better than an information retrieval baseline in taking fourth-grade science exam (which still has a ways to go to gain a passing score of 65%). I failed hard. Here’s an example to get a sense of the difficulty of these questions.
There are several defined conversational branches that the bots can take depending on what the user enters, but the primary goal of the app is to sell comic books and movie tickets. As a result, the conversations users can have with Star-Lord might feel a little forced. One aspect of the experience the app gets right, however, is the fact that the conversations users can have with the bot are interspersed with gorgeous, full-color artwork from Marvel’s comics.
The upcoming TODA agents are good at one thing, and one thing only. As Facebook found out with the ambitious Project M, building general personal assistants that can help users in multiple tasks (cross-domain agents) is hard. Think awfully hard. Beyond the obvious increase in scope, knowledge, and vocabulary, there is no built-in data generator that feeds the hungry learning machine (sans an unlikely concerted effort to aggregate the data silos from multiple businesses). The jury is out whether the army of human agents that Project M employs can scale, even with Facebook’s kind of resources. In addition, cross-domain agents will probably need major advances in areas such as domain adaptation, transfer learning, dialog planning and management, reinforcement/apprenticeship learning, automatic dialog evaluation, etc.
Previous generations of chatbots were present on company websites, e.g. Ask Jenn from Alaska Airlines which debuted in 2008 or Expedia's virtual customer service agent which launched in 2011. The newer generation of chatbots includes IBM Watson-powered "Rocky", introduced in February 2017 by the New York City-based e-commerce company Rare Carat to provide information to prospective diamond buyers.