Earlier, I made a rather lazy joke with a reference to the Terminator movie franchise, in which an artificial intelligence system known as Skynet becomes self-aware and identifies the human race as the greatest threat to its own survival, triggering a global nuclear war by preemptively launching the missiles under its command at cities around the world. (If by some miracle you haven’t seen any of the Terminator movies, the first two are excellent but I’d strongly advise steering clear of later entries in the franchise.)
Two trends — the exploding popularity of mobile messaging apps and advances in artificial intelligence — are coinciding to enable a new generation of tools that enable brands to communicate with customers in powerful new ways at reduced cost. Retailers and technology firms are experimenting with chatbots, powered by a combination of machine learning, natural language processing, and live operators, to provide customer service, sales support, and other commerce-related functions.
1. AI-based: these ones really rely on training and are fairly complicated to set up. You train the chatbot to understand specific topics and tell your users which topics your chatbot can engage with. AI chatbots require all sorts of fall back and intent training. For example, let’s say you built a doctor chatbot (off the top of my head because I am working on one at the moment), it would have to understand that “i have a headache” and “got a headache” and “my head hurts” are the same intent. The user is free to engage and the chatbot has to pick things up.
Your first question is how much of it does she want? 1 litre? 500ml? 200? She tells you she wants a 1 litre Tropicana 100% Orange Juice. Now you know that regular Tropicana is easily available, but 100% is hard to come by, so you call up a few stores beforehand to see where it’s available. You find one store that’s pretty close by, so you go back to your mother and tell her you found what she wanted. It’s $3 and after asking her for the money, you go on your way.
We need to know the specific intents in the request (we will call them as entities), for eg — the answers to the questions like when?, where?, how many? etc., that correspond to extracting the information from the user request about datetime, location, number respectively. Here datetime, location, number are the entities. Quoting the above weather example, the entities can be ‘datetime’ (user provided information) and location(note — location need not be an explicit input provided by the user and will be determined from the user location as default, if nothing is specified).
“Today, chat isn’t yet being perceived as an engagement driver, but more of a customer service operation[…]” Horwitz writes for Chatbots Magazine. “Brands and marketers can start collecting data around the engagement and interaction of end users. Those that are successful could see higher brand recognition, turning user-level mobile moments into huge returns.”
The term "ChatterBot" was originally coined by Michael Mauldin (creator of the first Verbot, Julia) in 1994 to describe these conversational programs. Today, most chatbots are either accessed via virtual assistants such as Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, via messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger or WeChat, or via individual organizations' apps and websites.  Chatbots can be classified into usage categories such as conversational commerce (e-commerce via chat), analytics, communication, customer support, design, developer tools, education, entertainment, finance, food, games, health, HR, marketing, news, personal, productivity, shopping, social, sports, travel and utilities.
For each kind of question, a unique pattern must be available in the database to provide a suitable response. With lots of combination on patterns, it creates a hierarchical structure. We use algorithms to reduce the classifiers and generate the more manageable structure. Computer scientists call it a “Reductionist” approach- in order to give a simplified solution, it reduces the problem.
In 2000 a chatbot built using this approach was in the news for passing the “Turing test”, built by John Denning and colleagues. It was built to emulate the replies of a 13 year old boy from Ukraine (broken English and all). I met with John in 2015 and he made no false pretenses about the internal workings of this automaton. It may have been “brute force” but it proved a point: parts of a conversation can be made to appear “natural” using a sufficiently large definition of patterns. It proved Alan Turing’s assertion, that this question of a machine fooling humans was “meaningless”.
“To be honest, I’m a little worried about the bot hype overtaking the bot reality,” said M.G. Siegler, a partner with GV, the investment firm formerly known as Google Ventures. “Yes, the high level promise of what bots can offer is great. But this isn’t going to happen overnight. And it’s going to take a lot of experimentation and likely bot failure before we get there.”
“Major shifts on large platforms should be seen as an opportunities for distribution. That said, we need to be careful not to judge the very early prototypes too harshly as the platforms are far from complete. I believe Facebook’s recent launch is the beginning of a new application platform for micro application experiences. The fundamental idea is that customers will interact with just enough UI, whether conversational and/or widgets, to be delighted by a service/brand with immediate access to a rich profile and without the complexities of installing a native app, all fueled by mature advertising products. It’s potentially a massive opportunity.” — Aaron Batalion, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners
User message. Once authenticated, the user sends a message to the bot. The bot reads the message and routes it to a natural language understanding service such as LUIS. This step gets the intents (what the user wants to do) and entities (what things the user is interested in). The bot then builds a query that it passes to a service that serves information, such as Azure Search for document retrieval, QnA Maker for FAQs, or a custom knowledge base. The bot uses these results to construct a response. To give the best result for a given query, the bot might make several back-and-forth calls to these remote services.
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Dan uses an example of a text to speech bot that a user might operate within a car to turn windscreen wipers on and off, and lights on and off. The users’ natural language query is processed by the conversation service to work out the intent and the entity, and then using the context, replies through the dialog in a way that the user can understand.
At a high level, a conversational bot can be divided into the bot functionality (the "brain") and a set of surrounding requirements (the "body"). The brain includes the domain-aware components, including the bot logic and ML capabilities. Other components are domain agnostic and address non-functional requirements such as CI/CD, quality assurance, and security.
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.com, 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 Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg unveiled that Messenger would allow chatbots into the app. In large companies, like in hospitals and aviation organizations, IT architects are designing reference architectures for Intelligent Chatbots that are used to unlock and share knowledge and experience in the organization more efficiently, and reduce the errors in answers from expert service desks significantly. These Intelligent Chatbots make use of all kinds of artificial intelligence like image moderation and natural language understanding (NLU), natural language generation (NLG), machine learning and deep learning.