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What Are Chatbots, and Why Are Facebook and Microsoft Building Them?

By Chris Neiger - Apr 18, 2016 at 5:35PM

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They may eventually make your life easier, but they have a ways to go before that happens.


Image source: Microsoft.

Chatbots are popping up everywhere recently. Microsoft's (MSFT -0.23%) Twitter chatbot, Tay, infamously went on a bit of hateful and racist tirade last month after a group of Twitter users exploited Tay's childlike learning curve. Microsoft quickly moved in and did some damage control, but ultimately had to shut Tay down for a while. 

And Facebook (FB 1.18%) made its own bot news this month when it said that companies will be able to build and put their own chatbots into Messenger to interact with customers. 

These chatbots are designed to provide us information (like the weather or trending political articles) through a natural, conversational tone. Most of the time they're powered by artificial intelligence (AI), but sometimes they're also paired with humans to help with more difficult questions or tasks.

The idea is that these chatbots will eventually be a way for us to easily find anything that we're looking for, without having to do a Web search or open up multiple apps.

What's the difference between Siri, Cortana, and a chatbot?
Truthfully, they're very similar. But there are a few differences. First, most chatbots learn from past conversations and don't just answer questions about whether or not you need to bring an umbrella on your commute (though they can do that, too). 

Second, chatbots can start expecting what we'll ask them because of their AI capabilities. They won't just serve up answers, but make suggestions before we even ask.

Chatbots may eventually evolve into more general personal assistants, or merge with what we already have, but for now they're simply a new way to get information online.

What the tech companies are doing with chatbots
Microsoft's Tay was supposed to converse with Twitter users and learn more natural language skills. After just a day of regurgitating some of the more darker conversations online, Tay was taken down.

Microsoft's had better luck with chatbots in China. The company's Xiaoice chatbot interacts with mainly teenagers and can remember specific, but limited, details of conversations. If you told Xiaoice that you broke up with a girlfriend, it might ask you about it the next time you chatted with it and if you're feeling OK.

But Facebook is taking bots to the next level. The company's launch of Bots for Messenger allows companies to build their own bots for the messenger app and interact with customers in new, automated ways. For example, the Shop Spring bot can suggest apparel for you after minimal interactions, and the Poncho bot can have a friendly conversation without about your local weather and send you daily updates. 

The customizable bots are way for Facebook to make Messenger the go-to communication platform for businesses and customers. After interacting with the CNN bot, Poncho, and Spring for a just a few minutes, I found them mostly to be useful, but hardly perfect. 

Poncho appeared to forget, or not recognize, my location even after telling it more than once in the conversation where I was. And the Spring bot found some shoes I was looking for, but then appeared to stop searching after I requested new information. Fortunately, a real person picked up a minute later where the bot left off, and offered some links to shoes.

Facebook's making its Wit.ai Bot Engine available to developers, which will allow their bots to "interpret intent from natural language, and continuously learn to get better over time" so there's going to be a small learning curve for a bit. 

Bots everywhere
In a recent Bloomberg article, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said about apps that, "The complexity is too much. We need to tame it. We need to be able to make it much more natural for people to get things done." 

That's essentially why these companies think bots are the next big thing, or at least one of the next big things in tech. And Facebook already thinks it can make money from this. 

The company will allow sponsored messages to users who have already voluntarily interacted with a company. Facebook's limiting these sponsored messages right now, so there's no way to know if they'll take off. But if Facebook and Microsoft continue to hone their chatbot skills, and make them very useful, sponsored messages may eventually feel less like an ad, and more like a conversational sales pitch. 

 

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