This month at Facebook F8, the annual developers conference, they announced their Messenger Platform (Beta) with bots and Send/Receive APIs. A bot, in this case is a chat bot or message bot, and is best described as a computer program that can simulate intelligent conversation using textual methods. The launch of the new Facebook API’s enable businesses to deploy message bots to answer questions from customers through the Facebook messenger interface. It is a great move by Facebook and will no doubt make communication between consumers and businesses easier than ever. Chat bots however, are nothing new, they have been around for more than 10 years and used primarily in conjunction with 2 way SMS. In the early days there were hilarious (but sad) stories of people falling in love with bots, thinking they were real people.
The success of 82ASK, later Texperts in the UK and ChaCha in the US, was proof of how popular chat bots combined with human intelligence could be, even though in my personal experience, most of the time was actually spent trying to figure out how to trick the bots with crazy questions. These bots were chat services that utilized SMS, where questions were texted in to the service, and there were real people who received the request and in turn sent back the answer via an SMS text response. The requests were primarily ‘searches’ or questions that required an answer to be looked up. Remember at that time mobile search was extremely slow (no 3G or LTE) and most mobile users had limited accessibility to mobile data altogether because it was so expensive. Today, many smartphone owners or those possessing other mobile capable devices use voice control to ask questions to Siri on an Apple mobile device or Google on an Android mobile device. And today, like in the past, there are those that try and stump Siri and Google with crazy questions or requests for pure entertainment. No doubt the technology and heuristics have improved significantly, but as many of us have experienced even with the latest voice recognition software and technology, there is still a lot more work that needs to be done to make it completely user friendly, without having to repeat or rephrase continuously. And chat bots will most likely be plagued with similar weaknesses in the beginning as well, but will be able to handle straightforward and relatively simple interactions. In the near future there will still be a need for human intervention, in terms of moderating communication exchanges and to man call centers to answer more complex questions.
Here are some key questions only the future can answer:
- How many smaller, less technically capable companies will be able to take advantage of this service?
- How will these Facebook bots co-exists with other communication channels? e.g., SMS, email, IM and phone because lets not forget, not everyone uses Facebook.
- Will consumers trust Facebook enough to do real and sizeable commercial transactions through it?
- Will bots ever be truly intelligent enough to serve consumers with complex questions without some human intervention?
- How will companies easily tie Facebook identities to customer accounts and avoid fraud in the process?
It’s an exciting resurgence of the chat bot and I’m very much looking forward to how intelligent and useful they become in Enterprise to Consumer communications. I’m also predicting there will be huge growth in the need for chat bot application platforms, and suspect many companies who have been using SMS chat for years, will have a great advantage. What’s your take on this? Please leave your comment below.
Author: Rob Malcolm, Senior Vice President Corporate Development, Mblox
References: Facebook Messenger Platform