At this year’s I/O, Google announced its own Facebook Messenger competitor called Allo. Apart from some neat features around privacy and self-expression, the really interesting part of Allo is @google, the app’s AI digital assistant. Google’s assistant is interesting because the company has about a decades-long head start in machine learning applied to search, so its likely that Allo’s chatbot will be very useful. In fact, you could see Allo becoming the primary interface for interacting with Google search over time. This interaction model would more closely resemble Larry Page’s long-term vision for search, which goes far beyond the clumsy search query + results page model of today:
If AI struggles with fourth-grade science question answering, should AI be expected to hold an adult-level, open-ended chit-chat about politics, entertainment, and weather? It is thus encouraging to see that Microsoft’s Satya Nadella did not give up on Tay after its debacle, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is sponsoring an Alexa social chatbot competition. I love this below quote from Jeff:
ALICE – which stands for Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity, an acronym that could have been lifted straight out of an episode of The X-Files – was developed and launched by creator Dr. Richard Wallace way back in the dark days of the early Internet in 1995. (As you can see in the image above, the website’s aesthetic remains virtually unchanged since that time, a powerful reminder of how far web design has come.)
There are situations for chatbots, however, if you are able to recognize the limitations of chatbot technology. The real value from chatbots come from limited workflows such as a simple question and answer or trigger and action functionality, and that’s where the technology is really shining. People tend to want to find answers without the need to talk to a real person, so organizations are enabling their customers to seek help how they please. Mastercard allows users to check in with their accounts by messaging its respective bot. Whole Foods uses a chatbot for its customers to easily surface recipes, and Staples partnered with IBM to create a chatbot to answer general customer inquiries about orders, products and more.
Why are chatbots important? A chatbot is often described as one of the most advanced and promising expressions of interaction between humans and machines. However, from a technological point of view, a chatbot only represents the natural evolution of a Question Answering system leveraging Natural Language Processing (NLP). Formulating responses to questions in natural language is one of the most typical Examples of Natural Language Processing applied in various enterprises’ end-use applications.
This is the big one. We worked with one particular large publisher (can’t name names unfortunately, but hundreds of thousands of users) in two phases. We initially released a test phase that was sort of a “catch all”. Anyone could message a broad keyword to their bot and start a campaign. Although we had a huge number of users come in, engagement was relatively average (87% open rate and 27.05% click-through rate average over the course of the test). Drop off here was fairly high, about 3.14% of users had unsubscribed by the end of the test.
“The chat space is sort of the last unpolluted space [on your phone],” said Sam Mandel, who works at the startup studio Betaworks and is also building a weather bot for Slack called Poncho. “It’s like the National Park of people’s online experience. Right now, the way people use chat services, it’s really a good private space that you control.” (That, of course, could quickly go sour if early implementations are too spammy or useless.)
Jabberwacky learns new responses and context based on real-time user interactions, rather than being driven from a static database. Some more recent chatbots also combine real-time learning with evolutionary algorithms that optimise their ability to communicate based on each conversation held. Still, there is currently no general purpose conversational artificial intelligence, and some software developers focus on the practical aspect, information retrieval.