X ways to do Y, with bots!

by Danny Wilson, Web wizard and budding bot-anist

There’s been a lot of talk in the office about “bots”, while definitely a buzz word at the moment is the hype justified? What are bots and what do they do?

Bots are primarily services you can interact with, in a pseudo-human way, via a chat interface; be it text based, speech or visual communication. Essentially they let you do everyday tasks without having to deal with the tedium of human interaction.

Although being thrust into the limelight by companies like Facebook, Microsoft and Slack the chatbot has a much longer history than you might expect.

Bot History 101

The first “chatbot” was built in 1966 (Eliza) and was capable of mimicking basic human conversation, most famed for “Doctor” script.

Then came Parry in 1972 which attempted to simulate a person with paranoid schizophrenia. A match made in heaven Parry and Eliza were the first bots to have a “conversation” in 1972 at the International Conference on Computer Communications.

Things started to progress and in 1988 Jabberwacky arrived with an AI driven entirely through human interaction.

1995 A.L.I.C.E (Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity) was a huge step forward in matching heuristic patterns from human input but was still unable to pass the Turing test.

SmarterChild came in 2001 was done to showcase what bots could achieve in an attempt to lure business in for custom solutions. At its peak SmarterChild was sending over a billion messages a day to some 10 million users!

Things were once again jump started in 2006 when IBM announced Watson, designed specifically to win at Jeopardy! (Successfully won against two former champions in 2011).

Now we’re into familiar territory with the launch of Siri in 2010, Google Now in 2012 and both Alexa and Cortana in 2015.

Chat bots are maturing; SmarterChild finished school and got a real job… Now is when things really step up a gear.

Bots in the wild

Bots used to be solitary beasts, caged in the realms of specialised apps and bespoke scripts but they’ve broken free from their chains and are found in some of the most used apps on the market!

You can find chatbots in lots of messaging apps, including Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Slack, Skype and Telegram.

Bots are being used for a huge range of things and most fit somewhere on the line between automated responses and “intelligent” conversation.

Rule based bots are similar to automated text surveys, accepting a specific set of inputs and matching these against predefined rules to formulate a response, systems like IFTTT have been offering simple, single task bots like this for years.

More advanced AI bots, however, take pattern matching up a step with pattern identification. This is still a work in progress with most bots looking down this route struggling to find the correct balance of breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding, not to mention the “quirks” of the unpredictable humans that they interact with!

Personal Assistants

Personal assistants tend to fall more heavily on the AI side of the fence, relying on context and basic understanding of what you are “likely” to mean to help you organise nearly every aspect of your life.

The more generic offerings for large tech companies such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa can be used to automate and manage many things in your life and around your home; assuming you’ve got a “connected home” and all the kit that goes with it.

The Chinese market has been hot on chatbots for a while now and have become hugely popular with systems like WeChat leading the way. This has resulted in a more conventional, standardised chat experience with many brands using the same common UI elements making it even easier to do common tasks.

We are expecting this area to improve quickly with big companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft all in the running. Googles latest venture comes in the form of Allo (yes another chat app) that seems to serve primarily as a wrapper for the new Google Assistant. This learns from the Chinese example and provides a lot of handy one click features, using context and learns about you to improve its “Smart Responses”.

Sales/Marketing

One of the most promising sectors for bots is sales and marketing; having the ability to interact with your customers directly, where they are, can be a very powerful tool to business.

We’ve seen a string of brands make the move with ecommerce being a popular focus, particularly on Facebooks messenger platform with the flagship “ShopSpring” bot that lets you buy shoes directly from the messenger app with a few simple, and importantly natural, commands.

Many sites also initiate sales bots to interact with visitors, introducing them to key or new features or giving them guides on how to get started. This helps sales team’s pre-screen potential customers while also giving the customers themselves more information on the business/service/product.

Bots are also taking over our phone lines; we’ve been used to receiving automated messages regarding our recent accident at work or unresolved PPI claim and, however infuriating they can be, that’s all done via bots! These are also regularly used to send out political messages in the run up to elections in the US and Canada although additional regulation is being put in place after some dubious tactics were used at the 2011 Canadian federal elections; “RoboGate” where bots were used to call suspected supporters of opposition parties telling them (falsely) that their polling station had been moved.

Services

The right service based bot can do just about anything you could ask for; whether it’s finding nearby restaurants, reading the news, sorting business expenses or seeking medical advice bots have you covered!

Service based bots are less likely to perform more niche tasks; one of the best examples is Poncho the Facebook weather bot. Although now including a host of additional features Poncho was designed to give a natural chat interface for finding the weather. OpenTable are said to be working on integrations with both Google Allo and Apple iMessenger to integrate an easy way to find and book tables at local restaurants.

Companion bots

The world of companion bots; bots purely designed to provide conversation or entertainment over specific functionality range. Unlike most other bots these tend to be standalone solutions, built on top of custom hardware to fill a niche; popular examples are the lovable humanoid Pepper, capable of distinguishing facial expressions to the weird world of Jibo, “The world’s first social robot” that can read bedtime stories to your kids (among many other things).

TL;DR

Bots are big and spreading like wildfire!

Whether you’re a business looking to take advantage of emerging technologies and push into new sectors or a casual user just wanting to automate some of the drudgery of modern digital life there is a bot out there for you. And if there’s not, the number of DIY bot tools and dedicated professional bot development teams is increasing rapidly so lots of opportunities to explore!

At Waracle we have been using a number of bots internally throughout our development process; some of our most used are git integrations, continuous integration runners and service monitors but we’ve the bots have now started to leak into other areas of the business. We run an employee of the month bot that not only deals with nagging people to vote it also collates the votes and hands them over to our HR department. We’re excited about the opportunities that bots can bring to our internal processes, as well as our clients. If you would like to get in touch with our team about specific use cases and experience it would be great to hear from you.

We’ll be posting some of our favourite bots on twitter @WaracleUK; join the hashtag #BotWatch and get involved in the conversation!


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