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Will this year see the rise of the chat bots?

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Will this year see the rise of the chat bots?

Stephen Abbott Pugh | January 12, 2016

Have you ever spoken to a chat bot? You may have done so and not even realized it. But if technology companies have their way, it’s likely that you’ll spend time in conversation with one in 2016.

And if chat bots are a breakthrough success in 2016, how will the media be able to harness this new technology?

Chat bots are online services programmed to take actions or give automated responses based on comments or questions that a user sends to them. These responses can be very simple, like checking the weather near you or providing transport timetables. 

But recently technology companies have started unveiling more complicated chat bots that interact with services and are infused with artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to make them act in a more natural, conversational way that make people feel like they’re talking to a person rather than a robot.

Services like Telegram and Slack have tools to let developers create chat bots or apps that live on their platforms while companies like Layer, Viv, Wit, Intercom and Howdy have sprung up to make it easier to add conversational interfaces to any service, often using AI techniques and natural language processing to automate responses to users.

Others like Operator, Luka, First Opinion, Magic and Assist have created paid-for services using conversational or chat interfaces where you send an SMS to their service or chat in their apps to get help with anything from talking to a doctor to consulting a therapist to making restaurant bookings or doing other personal tasks.

Meanwhile Facebook is testing M, its “personal digital assistant,” which lives on the Messenger platform, helps users with a range of tasks and is “powered by artificial intelligence that's trained and supervised by people."

This year will see Facebook opening up the Messenger platform further so that more developers can build services like the transportation platform that Facebook recently unveiled with Uber.

2016 is also likely to see the unveiling of Google’s rumoured new messaging service with some developers speculating about whether Apple’s iMessage could also become a platform.

So a lot of big technology players are betting on conversational interfaces being the way that users find it easiest to interact with their services. In doing so, these companies are keen to emulate the runaway success of China’s WeChat, an “all-in-one communications app” which had 650 million monthly active users toward the end of 2015.

In his “Futures of text” essay, Jonathan Libov writes that “text-based, conversational interactions are liberating in their familiarity” and there are many others who agree that messaging-as-an-interface could make a big impact on the way we use technology in 2016. So how might the rise of chat bots/conversational services have an impact on the media and the mobile habits of audiences?

Most publishers are already finding it increasingly difficult to reliably reach mobile readers without paid-for advertising or working closely with the new gatekeepers who run the messaging or social media platforms, which are the most heavily used applications for the majority of Internet-connected mobile users. As these platforms incorporate more and more services into their conversational interfaces, there is a danger that many media companies will experience a drop in mobile readership unless they can respond by making their content available through the same platforms.

2015 saw the media carrying out some experiments with chat app platforms like WhatsApp, Line or Slack to test ways to reach out to new audiences. But many experienced challenges with scaling the manual efforts required to make these platforms work in the publishers’ favor. The Tow Center’s Guide to chat apps by Trushar Barot and Eytan Oren gives a good overview of some of these efforts.

Journalists should not let this deter them. As Barot and Oren note, there are great opportunities through these new platforms for the media to improve the ways that they verify eyewitness news, collect user-generated content and engage with their audience. But 2016 will need to see a lot more experimentation to make sure media companies aren’t left out of the conversation.

Stephen Abbott Pugh works on audience engagement strategies with Code for Africa. Learn more about his work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here

Main image CC-licensed courtesy of Traveller_40.

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