By: Kirk Douglas
The last few weeks, it’s become nearly impossible to scour the latest in tech news without coming across something related to the idea of “bots.”
Bots, per their current implementations, are bits of software AI geared toward helping users complete tasks, request information or even shop online. Their usage isn’t limited to these things and may also consist of programs used to carry out mundane or time consuming tasks that might have otherwise required a human.
The idea around bots and their proposed usage is pretty straight-forward. As internet communications, cloud computing and complex machine learning improves, there are companies well positioned to leverage the power of bots to make all sorts of tasks faster and easier for users of modern technology.
Two such companies are Microsoft and Facebook.
On Wednesday, March 30th Microsoft took the stage during their 2016 Build conference (a gathering to announce software advancements and upcoming developer tools in the Windows community) to announce future plans with two of their marquee products that will introduce bots.
Cortana, Microsoft’s premiere virtual assistant software – a key component of the Windows 10 operating system – will soon feature additional tools to leverage the use of bots by way of a new set of developer tools. Paired up with Skype – the popular Microsoft communications property- Cortana will execute new bot-centric abilities directly by way of user chats on Skype to provide users new capabilities.
The system in place to make this happen is being billed the “Skype Bot SDK” (or Software Developers Kit), a set of tools for developers to incorporate their businesses into a chat conversation within the existing Skype app.
Using Cortana as a sort of ‘broker’ (as described on stage) between the end user and a service, Cortana will ask questions and request permissions to execute tasks prompted by the user. In the first example given on stage, a Microsoft presenter requested an order of cupcakes from local business “Cups and Cakes,” at which point Cortana requested location information and asked if the order would be for delivery.
In addition to placing food orders, the presenter also used Cortana to schedule a trip, at which point Cortana suggested a hotel stay with a Westin hotel in the area. This suggestion was made contextually, based on user preferences and permissions ‘learned’ by Cortana from the presenter over time. Mention was made that the Westin was a suggestion based on prior stays that were booked online in the past.
In a somewhat impressive display of the technology’s capability, the bot went so far as to present room options and within seconds made the task of planning a trip and a hotel stay a breeze.
Seeing these actions play out in the Microsoft Build conference video made for an interesting viewing experience that harkened back to Apple’s first unveiling of Siri. It was easy for me to see the potential in such tools, though the thought also comes to mind that there will need to be considerable efforts made by both Microsoft and partners to make these tools sticky with users. More on that later.
Not to be outdone by Microsoft, just two weeks after the Build conference, Facebook announced some similar plans to incorporate bots of their own.
On April 12th at the (mostly) annual F8 Conference held by Facebook in San Francisco, Mark Zuckerberg took the stage in an equally excited fashion to announce a 10-year road map for the company which includes the integration of bots for Messenger.
Messenger, the company’s fastest growing app (yes—even more-so than the Facebook app itself), now has 900 million monthly active users. Zuckerberg detailed the staggering 60 billion messages a day (a number 3-fold that of SMS messages) and stressed the widespread importance and connectivity offered by his company’s platform.
It was in this vein that the company proceeded to announce their own “Messenger Platform,” or more specifically, “Messenger Chat Bots” as it was also referred to. With the new developer API’s allowing bot access within chat conversations, users could message their favorite brands or companies to initiate conversations, shop or request information in a similar way to what Microsoft demonstrated.
In the first on stage example, a chat conversation was started by searching for CNN where you would normally type a friends or users name. At which point, the user could ask a question or choose from suggested stories relevant in the news.
In the second example, 1-800-Flowers was messaged to order an arrangement, choose a fellow recipient who works at Facebook and send the flowers off with a note; all without making a phone call. To which Zuckerberg pointed out the irony of having communicated with a company whose name implies a necessary phone call which was now avoidable by said technology.
As per the announcement, CNN is one of the launch partners in the Chat Bot program. When I saw this demo in the F8 keynote presentation I immediately picked up my iPhone to give it a try. Upon firing up the Messenger app, I took to the recipient field and typed “CNN” to see if I could initiate their bot.
As I completed the three-letter name a new section appeared where I would normally see my suggested friends. In place of people was a new section titled “Bots and Businesses,” with the first entry showing the blue messenger bolt logo (see image above) indicating I could initiate a conversation with the CNN bot.
Choosing the top listing prompted a greeting with options that included “Top Stories,” “Stories for You” and “Ask CNN.” Without choosing any option, I simply typed “Tell me about bots,” to which CNN auto-replied with a suggested article from CNN Money about the aforementioned Facebook announcement.
I took a brief look at the story and went back to the message thread. At which point I noticed a message that said among other things ‘..use one or two words to tell me what you want to know more about.’
Naturally, I said “bots information,” hoping for a more human-like response. Unfortunately, this query returned a response for me to ‘….try again,’ so I proceeded asking in a slightly different manner “What are bots?”
The results returned this time were the same as before and suddenly I felt a little less excited about the future of bots. Upon further consideration, this actually makes sense. CNN after all, is a news site and not a personal assistant. Surely they wouldn’t respond to me like a personal assistant because this is not their area of expertise.
But strangely the response didn’t meet my expectations. When both Microsoft and Facebook got on stage to announce their bot-related endeavors there was an emphasis made by both companies that a more humanlike approach (sans-human interaction) would be the result of employing bots to help everyday people complete these sort of tasks and get information. Yet, it didn’t feel very human at all. I was reminded once again about the promises of Siri, Google Now and the current iteration of Cortana. All useful services, seemingly half-baked in their ability to understand human desire.
The promise of bots is to address precisely this shortcoming among our current tools. As both companies stated, cloud computing and machine learning will assist this technology to become better, more useful and more understanding over time.
It is hard to say with these sort of “beta” bots what the future holds for the technology. Bots could after all become a very big part of our future. I can certainly imagine a time where these tools work near-flawlessly but historically speaking, we’ve been promised more humanlike interaction from our technology before, only to see it fall short.
As a lover of all things tech, I think Microsoft and Facebook are onto something. Recent strides in Microsoft’s online and cloud services and Facebook’s massive user base are nothing to scoff at. If anyone in modern tech has a chance of taking bots mainstream, I surely wouldn’t discount either company to get the job done. They clearly have the networking and software chops to bring bots to the masses – which makes it all the more puzzling to see Google and Apple notably absent from this emerging discussion.
Only time will tell what the future holds in the arena of AI by way of bots. But I’d be willing to put money on Google, Apple and Amazon entering the space soon. And if they do, we might safely make a bet moving forward that bots could be a big part of or future technology and communications. And if they don’t… well, we might be surprised to see Microsoft and Facebook in the lead moving into a bold new world of AI.