In so many ways I think chatbots are only just getting started – their potential is much underestimated at present. A big challenge is for chatbots mature so that they do more than is possible as a result of content entry wizards. If your content is created with a few easy clicks, it is unlikely to be much inspiration to anyone – and to date, despite much work in the field, the ability to emulated the creative open ended nature of real intellingence has seen only very partial success.
Kik is one of the most popular chat apps among teens with 275M MAUs and 40% of those are in the 13–24 year old demographic. In April, Kik launched its own bot store with 16 launch partners including Sephora, H&M, Vine, the Weather Channel, and Funny or Die. Using Kik’s bots currently feel like using the internet in 1994, very rough around the edges and limited functionality / usefulness. However, we’ll see how their API and bots progress over time, Kik’s popularity among an attractive demographic might convince some brands to invest in the platform.

Operator calls itself a “request network” aiming to “unlock the 90% of commerce that’s not on the internet.” The Operator app, developed by Uber co-founder Garrett Camp, connects you with a network of “operators” who act like concierges who can execute any shopping-related request. You can order concert tickets, get gift ideas, or even get interior design recommendations for new furniture. Operator seems to be positioning itself towards “high consideration” purchases, bigger ticket purchases requiring more research and expertise, where its operators can add significant value to a transaction.
It won’t be an easy march though once we get to the nitty-gritty details. For example, I heard through the grapevine that when Starbucks looked at the voice data they collected from customer orders, they found that there are a few millions unique ways to order. (For those in the field, I’m talking about unique user utterances.) This is to be expected given the wild combinations of latte vs mocha, dairy vs soy, grande vs trenta, extra-hot vs iced, room vs no-room, for here vs to-go, snack variety, spoken accent diversity, etc. The AI practitioner will soon curse all these dimensions before taking a deep learning breath and getting to work. I feel though that given practically unlimited data, deep learning is now good enough to overcome this problem, and it is only a matter of couple of years until we see these TODA solutions deployed. One technique to watch is Generative Adversarial Nets (GAN). Roughly speaking, GAN engages itself in an iterative game of counterfeiting real stuffs, getting caught by the police neural network, improving counterfeiting skill, and rinse-and-repeating until it can pass as your Starbucks’ order-taking person, given enough data and iterations.
Interface designers have come to appreciate that humans' readiness to interpret computer output as genuinely conversational—even when it is actually based on rather simple pattern-matching—can be exploited for useful purposes. Most people prefer to engage with programs that are human-like, and this gives chatbot-style techniques a potentially useful role in interactive systems that need to elicit information from users, as long as that information is relatively straightforward and falls into predictable categories. Thus, for example, online help systems can usefully employ chatbot techniques to identify the area of help that users require, potentially providing a "friendlier" interface than a more formal search or menu system. This sort of usage holds the prospect of moving chatbot technology from Weizenbaum's "shelf ... reserved for curios" to that marked "genuinely useful computational methods".
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