Chat bots are the latest tech trend that will go nowhere

Bots, bots, bots, bots, bots. Welcome to the technology world’s latest trend. Move over wearables, step aside connected home – it’s time for bots to have their moment in the sun.

Bots – or, more specifically, quasi-intelligent automated chat bots for popular messaging apps such as WhatsApp and WeChat that users “talk” to via text – are all the rage thanks mainly to Facebook and Microsoft.

Last month, Facebook devoted much of its annual F8 developers conference to talking about the coming wave of bots. Microsoft did the same a few weeks earlier when it detailed plans to incorporate chat bots into Skype.

If the two tech giants are to be believed, bots that can engage in spontaneous conversations will soon be handling everything from companies’ online customer service to scheduling meetings and even booking our travel.

As with many tech trends, such as wearables and the connected home, there is a good deal of hype distorting reality. When it comes to bots specifically, there’s a higher-than-­usual chance that the hype will in fact outweigh the technology’s actual utility, at least in the near future.

“It’s a little bit overblown,” says Rollo Carpenter, a veteran chat bot programmer. Mr Carpenter’s Cleverbot, launched in 2003 and available on the web and as a smartphone app, has been a finalist in the Loebner Prize, an annual competition that gauges the believability of chat bots.

Mr Carpenter says the technology required to make a bot appear to think spontaneously, and therefore ably answer users’ questions on the fly, is still a long way away despite decades of work by programmers like himself.

Users who try the bots now being rolled out by the likes of Facebook are therefore likely to be disappointed and those poor experiences will colour their overall opinion of the technology, he says.

It’s already happening. Writers for technology sites The Verge and Gizmodo who have tested Facebook Messenger’s weather and news-delivering bots have referred to them, respectively, as “the slowest way to use the internet”, and “frustrating and useless”.

Microsoft, meanwhile, ended up with egg on its face in March after its Tay bot turned racist, sexist and homophobic after only a day on Twitter.

“In order to do these things properly, we need a truer form of [artificial intelligence] or at least a truer form of machine understanding of language, which is not a solved problem at the moment,” Mr Carpenter says.

Part of the issue lies in the moti­vations of the companies involved. Facebook and Microsoft desperately want to be players in smartphone software, but both have lost out to Apple and Google’s Android, which control the ecosystem through their respective app stores.

Facebook and Microsoft would like their bot stores to be the next app stores. Such platforms could indeed be big because they can cater to all smartphone users. Facebook, for example, could sell all manner of chat bots to iPhone and Android users, since they wouldn’t be married to a specific operating system.

The stats are somewhat supportive of the scheme.

The US-based tracking firm comScore estimates that close to two-thirds of smartphone users download zero new apps each month.

The harsh truth for many businesses is that they’re wasting their resources on developing apps, since so few people are downloading them.

Messaging apps, on the other hand, are experiencing explosive growth.

Facebook Messenger has more than 800 million users while WhatsApp, purchased by Facebook in 2014, has a billion.

Most chat services weren’t even around a few years ago, which makes them the fastest-growing products ever.

Facebook and Microsoft are thus trying to convince businesses that their bots – and not apps – are the better way to get the attention of smartphone users.

Mr Carpenter doesn’t believe it will work. When it comes to AI assistants, consumers are looking for a multi-pronged, uber-capable option like Scarlett Johansson’s character Sam­antha in the film Her, not dozens of limited single-purpose bots.

In that vein, Google and Apple are on a better course with their respective assistants. While neither Google Now nor Siri works perfectly yet, their holistic approaches are better than the singular strategies from Facebook and Microsoft.

“The perfect bot merges the ability to understand what’s out there on the web, and that can do things for you on the web, with chatting with you,” Mr Carpenter says. “It’s the key to the whole concept and they’re not attempting to do that at all.”

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species

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