As I tinker with dialog systems at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, primarily by prototyping Alexa skills, I often wonder what AI is still lacking to build good conversational systems, punting the social challenge to another day. This post is my take on where AI has a good chance to improve and consequently, what we can expect from the next wave of conversational systems.
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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).
“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
Efforts by servers hosting websites to counteract bots vary. Servers may choose to outline rules on the behaviour of internet bots by implementing a robots.txt file: this file is simply text stating the rules governing a bot's behaviour on that server. Any bot that does not follow these rules when interacting with (or 'spidering') any server should, in theory, be denied access to, or removed from, the affected website. If the only rule implementation by a server is a posted text file with no associated program/software/app, then adhering to those rules is entirely voluntary – in reality there is no way to enforce those rules, or even to ensure that a bot's creator or implementer acknowledges, or even reads, the robots.txt file contents. Some bots are "good" – e.g. search engine spiders – while others can be used to launch malicious and harsh attacks, most notably, in political campaigns.
The classification score produced identifies the class with the highest term matches (accounting for commonality of words) but this has limitations. A score is not the same as a probability, a score tells us which intent is most like the sentence but not the likelihood of it being a match. Thus it is difficult to apply a threshold for which classification scores to accept or not. Having the highest score from this type of algorithm only provides a relative basis, it may still be an inherently weak classification. Also the algorithm doesn’t account for what a sentence is not, it only counts what it is like. You might say this approach doesn’t consider what makes a sentence not a given class.
To inspire the next generation of explorers, NASA reaches out to students in schools, community organizations, and public events. A star robotic ambassador is “Rov-E,” a close replica of real NASA Mars rovers. Through Amazon Lex, NASA staff can now easily navigate Rov-E via voice commands -- an effective conversational interface when speaking with large crowds. Multi-turn dialog management capability enables Rov-E "to talk,” answering students’ questions about Mars in an engaging way. Integration with AWS services allows Rov-E to connect and scale with various data sources to retrieve NASA’s Mars exploration information.
Speaking ahead of the Gartner Application Architecture, Development & Integration Summit in Sydney, Magnus Revang, research director at Gartner, said the broad appeal of chatbots stems from the efficiency and ease of interaction they create for employees, customers or other users. The potential benefits are significant for enterprises and shouldn’t be ignored.
The educators or class organizers can opt for chatbots to simplify daily routine tasks. Chatbots may serve as a helping hand to the teacher in dealing with the daily queries by allowing bots to answer the questions of students on a daily basis, or perhaps even check their homework. Eventually, they offer teachers more time to work with their students on a one-by-one basis.
Some brands already seem to be getting the balance right. A bot needs to capture a user's attention quickly and display a healthy curiosity about their new acquaintance, but too much curiosity can easily push them into creepy territory and turn people off. They have to display more than a basic knowledge of human conversational patterns, but they can't claim to be an actual human -- again, let's keep things from getting too creepy here.
1-800-Flowers’ 2017 first quarter results showed total revenues had increased 6.3 percent to $165.8 million, with the Company’s Gourmet Food and Gift Baskets business as a significant contributor. CEO Chris McCann stated, “…our Fannie May business recorded positive same store sales as well as solid eCommerce growth, reflecting the success of the initiatives we have implemented to enhance its performance.” While McCann doesn’t go into specifics, we assume that initiatives include the implementation of GWYN, which also seems to be supported by CB Insights’ finding: 70% of customers ordering through the chat bot were new 1-800-Flowers customers as of June 2016.
Through Amazon’s developer platform for the Echo (called Alexa Skills), developers can develop “skills” for Alexa which enable her to carry out new types of tasks. Examples of skills include playing music from your Spotify library, adding events to your Google Calendar, or querying your credit card balance with Capital One — you can even ask Alexa to “open Dominoes and place my Easy Order” and have pizza delivered without even picking up your smartphone. Now that’s conversational commerce in action.
Kik Messenger, which has 275 million registered users, recently announced a bot store. This includes one bot to send people Vine videos and another for getting makeup suggestions from Sephora. Twitter has had bots for years, like this bot that tweets about earthquakes as soon as they’re registered or a Domino’s bot that allows you to order a pizza by tweeting a pizza emoji.
Say you want to build a bot that tells the current temperature. The dialog for the bot only needs coding to recognize and report the requested location and temperature. To do this, the bot needs to pull data from the API of the local weather service, based on the user’s location, and to send that data back to the user—basically, a few lines of templatable code and you’re done.
Authentication. Users start by authenticating themselves using whatever mechanism is provided by their channel of communication with the bot. The bot framework supports many communication channels, including Cortana, Microsoft Teams, Facebook Messenger, Kik, and Slack. For a list of channels, see Connect a bot to channels. When you create a bot with Azure Bot Service, the Web Chat channel is automatically configured. This channel allows users to interact with your bot directly in a web page. You can also connect the bot to a custom app by using the Direct Line channel. The user's identity is used to provide role-based access control, as well as to serve personalized content.
There is no one right answer to this question, as the best solution will depend upon the specifics of your scenario and how the user would reasonably expect the bot to respond. However, as your conversation complexity increases dialogs become harder to manage. For complex branchings situations, it may be easier to create your own flow of control logic to keep track of your user's conversation.
There has been a great deal of controversy about the use of bots in an automated trading function. Auction website eBay has been to court in an attempt to suppress a third-party company from using bots to traverse their site looking for bargains; this approach backfired on eBay and attracted the attention of further bots. The United Kingdom-based bet exchange Betfair saw such a large amount of traffic coming from bots that it launched a WebService API aimed at bot programmers, through which it can actively manage bot interactions.
Botsify is another Facebook chatbot platform that helps make it easy to integrate chatbots into the system. Its paid subscription helps you in five easy steps. 1) Log into the botsify.com site, 2) Connect your Facebook account, 3) Setup a webhook, 4) Write up commands for the chatbot you are creating, and 5) Let Botisfy handle the customer service for you. If the paid services are a little too much, they do offer a free service that lets you create as many bots as your lovely imagination can dream up.
As with many 'organic' channels, the relative reach of your audience tends to decline over time due to a variety of factors. In email's case, it can be the over-exposure to marketing emails and moves from email providers to filter out promotional content; with other channels it can be the platform itself. Back in 2014 I wrote about how "Facebook's Likes Don't Matter Anymore" in relation to the declining organic reach of Facebook pages. Last year alone the organic reach of publishers on Facebook fell by a further 52%.
Spot is a chatbot developed by Criminal Psychologist Julia Shaw at the University College London. Using memory science and AI, Spot doesn’t just allow users to report workplace harassment and bullying, but is capable of asking personalized, open-ended questions to help you recall details about events that made you feel uncomfortable. The application helps users process what happened, to understand whether or not they experienced harassment or discrimination and offers advice on how they can take matters further.
Before you even write a single line of code, it's important to write a functional specification so the development team has a clear idea of what the bot is expected to do. The specification should include a reasonably comprehensive list of user inputs and expected bot responses in various knowledge domains. This living document will be an invaluable guide for developing and testing your bot.
However, as irresistible as this story was to news outlets, Facebook’s engineers didn’t pull the plug on the experiment out of fear the bots were somehow secretly colluding to usurp their meatbag overlords and usher in a new age of machine dominance. They ended the experiment due to the fact that, once the bots had deviated far enough from acceptable English language parameters, the data gleaned by the conversational aspects of the test was of limited value.
However, the revelations didn’t stop there. The researchers also learned that the bots had become remarkably sophisticated negotiators in a short period of time, with one bot even attempting to mislead a researcher by demonstrating interest in a particular item so it could gain crucial negotiating leverage at a later stage by willingly “sacrificing” the item in which it had feigned interest, indicating a remarkable level of premeditation and strategic “thinking.”
“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.)