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To envision the future of chatbots/virtual assistants, we need to take a quick trip down memory lane. Remember Clippy? Love him or hate him, he’s ingrained in our memory as the little assistant who couldn’t (sorry, Clippy.). But someday, this paper clip could be the chosen one. Imagine with me if you will a support agent speaking with a customer over the phone, or even chat support. Clippy could be listening in, reviewing the questions the customer is posing, and proactively providing relevant content to the support agent. Instead of digging around from system to system, good ‘ole Clippy would have their back, saving them the trouble of hunting down relevant information needed for the task at hand.
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.
“Beware though, bots have the illusion of simplicity on the front end but there are many hurdles to overcome to create a great experience. So much work to be done. Analytics, flow optimization, keeping up with ever changing platforms that have no standard. For deeper integrations and real commerce like Assist powers, you have error checking, integrations to APIs, routing and escalation to live human support, understanding NLP, no back buttons, no home button, etc etc. We have to unlearn everything we learned the past 20 years to create an amazing experience in this new browser.” — Shane Mac, CEO of Assist
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.
Interestingly, the as-yet unnamed conversational agent is currently an open-source project, meaning that anyone can contribute to the development of the bot’s codebase. The project is still in its earlier stages, but has great potential to help scientists, researchers, and care teams better understand how Alzheimer’s disease affects the brain. A Russian version of the bot is already available, and an English version is expected at some point this year.
The evolution of artificial intelligence is now in full swing and chatbots are only a faint splash on a huge wave of progress. Today the number of users of messaging apps like WhatsApp, Slack, Skype and their analogs is skyrocketing, Facebook Messenger alone has more than 1.2 billion monthly users. With the spread of messengers, virtual chatterbots that imitate human conversations for solving various tasks are becoming increasingly in demand. Chinese WeChat bots can already set medical appointments, call a taxi, send money to friends, check in for a flight and many many other.
These are hardly ideas of Hollywood’s science fiction. Even when the Starbucks bot can sound like Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha, the public will be unimpressed — we would prefer a real human interaction. Yet the public won’t have a choice; efficient task-oriented dialog agents will be the automatic vending machines and airport check-in kiosks of the near future.
The process of building, testing and deploying chatbots can be done on cloud-based chatbot development platforms offered by cloud Platform as a Service (PaaS) providers such as Oracle Cloud Platform Yekaliva and IBM Watson. These cloud platforms provide Natural Language Processing, Artificial Intelligence and Mobile Backend as a Service for chatbot development.
In 1950, Alan Turing's famous article "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" was published, which proposed what is now called the Turing test as a criterion of intelligence. This criterion depends on the ability of a computer program to impersonate a human in a real-time written conversation with a human judge, sufficiently well that the judge is unable to distinguish reliably—on the basis of the conversational content alone—between the program and a real human. The notoriety of Turing's proposed test stimulated great interest in Joseph Weizenbaum's program ELIZA, published in 1966, which seemed to be able to fool users into believing that they were conversing with a real human. However Weizenbaum himself did not claim that ELIZA was genuinely intelligent, and the introduction to his paper presented it more as a debunking exercise: