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The Truth About Conversational Bots; Nobody Likes Talking To Them!

When was the last time the whole of the tech industry took a false step?

Given how tough selling the future is, which is what tech start-ups have to do if they want to make it past the “wouldn’t it be cool if…” stage, perhaps it’s surprising it doesn’t happen more often – or perhaps we just don’t hear as much as the failed ideas as about the ones that succeed.

Anyway, we digress. The last time this happened, in fact, was just 4 months ago.

It was 4 months ago that Facebook, to much fanfare, released their chatbot platform for its Messenger service.

Soon we would all be chatting with friendly conversational bots, programmed to anticipate and satisfy our every whim and desire. Need a plane or train ticket, fancy ordering a pizza, or finding a decent restaurant – need assistance managing your money?

These and countless other scenarios were put forward as examples of when human beings would just love to talk to a conversational bot. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella felt sufficiently confident to declare that one day soon, bots would be as big as apps.

The reality however, has turned out quite different to how many experts predicted it would.

The only time it seems somebody would voluntarily engage with a chatbot is to ask one of them why they sucked so much.

There are several (fairly obvious, when you think about it) reasons for this.

To illustrate the first, let’s take the example of ordering a pizza. Aside from the novelty value of a bot asking you how your day has been before presenting you with a list of which pizzas are available (and some bots can’t even do this, they rely on you remembering what you had last time, or knowing the menu already), is it really easier than using swipe / swipe / tap?

In a recent blog post, mentioned on Fred Wilson’s daily blog for VC investors and start-ups, Ted Livingston, the CEO and founder of bot manufacturing platform Kik, writes; “Since we opened our bot platform for developers in April, more than 20,000 bots have been built for Kik. We’ve learned a lot. One of the things that has become increasingly clear is that the initial discussion about bots being powerful because of their conversational potential was somewhat misguided.”

“It’s certainly possible to imagine a world in which we routinely carry out human-like conversations with robots to get things done or be entertained, but we don’t yet live in such a world”, he adds.

Another reason for this is that, as Livingston puts it; natural language processing and artificial intelligence are not yet accomplished at managing human-like conversations.”

There are so many nuances to the way people communicate verbally or in written form that Livingston cites Sam Lessin, and ex-Facebook employee and now CEO of Fin; “None of the bot frameworks that big companies have released or endorsed, like, are close to being ready for prime time.”

The real value of messenger bots, argues Livingston, is that they can operate within a messaging platform and therefore in the first instance to use them does not require installing a new app on your smartphone device, allowing for quicker, more seamless discovery.

Bots can also grow organically on social media as friends share “mentions” and “invites” giving the bots permission to enter into chats between friends and make recommendations – just like a real friend.

It’s possible that like Wechat has in China, one single app in the West; messenger, say, or Whatsapp or Slack or Snapchat or any number of others could become the app from inside which a user does everything, from chatting to friends to ordering pizza, hailing cabs, even buying and selling their homes.

If that should happen, the age of the bots will be upon us. As Livingston puts it, “there are still many pieces of the platform to fall into place, payments not being the least among them. Good things take time. The Pokémon Go moment for bots is still to come”.


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