A bot is software that is designed to automate the kinds of tasks you would usually do on your own, like making a dinner reservation, adding an appointment to your calendar or fetching and displaying information. The increasingly common form of bots, chatbots, simulate conversation. They often live inside messaging apps — or are at least designed to look that way — and it should feel like you’re chatting back and forth as you would with a human.
One pertinent field of AI research is natural language processing. Usually, weak AI fields employ specialized software or programming languages created specifically for the narrow function required. For example, A.L.I.C.E. utilises a markup language called AIML, which is specific to its function as a conversational agent, and has since been adopted by various other developers of, so called, Alicebots. Nevertheless, A.L.I.C.E. is still purely based on pattern matching techniques without any reasoning capabilities, the same technique ELIZA was using back in 1966. This is not strong AI, which would require sapience and logical reasoning abilities.
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.
But, as any human knows, no question or statement in a conversation really has a limited number of potential responses. There is an infinite number of ways to combine the finite number of words in a human language to say something. Real conversation requires creativity, spontaneity, and inference. Right now, those traits are still the realm of humans alone. There is still a gamut of work to finish in order to make bots as person-centric as Rogerian therapists, but bots and their creators are getting closer every day.
Chatbots are used in a variety of sectors and built for different purposes. There are retail bots designed to pick and order groceries, weather bots that give you weather forecast of the day or week, and simply friendly bots that just talk to people in need of a friend. The fintech sector also uses chatbots to make consumers’ inquiries and application for financial services easier. A small business lender in Montreal, Thinking Capital, uses a virtual assistant to provide customers with 24/7 assistance through the Facebook Messenger. A small business hoping to get a loan from the company need only answer key qualification questions asked by the bot in order to be deemed eligible to receive up to $300,000 in financing.
For example, ecommerce companies will likely want a chatbot that can display products, handle shipping questions, but a healthcare chatbot would look very different. Also, while most chatbot software is continually upping the AI-ante, a company called Landbot is taking a different approach, stripping away the complexity to help create better customer conversations.
Do the nature of our services and size of our customer base warrant an investment in a more efficient and automated customer service response? How can we offer a more streamlined experience without (necessarily) increasing costly human resources? Amtrak’s website receives over 375,000 daily visitors, and they wanted a solution that provided users with instant access to online self-service.
According to this study by Petter Bae Brandtzaeg, “the real buzz about this technology did not start before the spring of 2016. Two reasons for the sudden and renewed interest in chatbots were [number one] massive advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and a major usage shift from online social networksto mobile messaging applications such as Facebook Messenger, Telegram, Slack, Kik, and Viber.”
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).