Friday, April 29, 2016

Chat Bots are Coming

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Messaging apps are becoming more and more popular.  WhatsApp has over 1 billion users, Facebook Messenger 900m, and WeChat 700m, and there are also lots of smaller ones like Kik and Line.

I've long felt that companies should offer Messenger platforms for customer services, but the issue is always one of providing support quickly without getting overwhelmed by millions of people wanting to get in touch.

Earlier this month Facebook announced that it was introducing an API for people to develop automated chatbots - effectively a way of answering questions automatically.

This is a good solution in principle - it allows companies to offer another access point, and gives them a platform more flexible (in some ways) than sms or email as it can be quicker, and can include clickable links, 'cards' and links to other apps, like maps.  It also means that people wouldn't have to download a new app for each company they want to deal with, but just add the company as a contact on messenger, which is much easier.

I expect that early bots will be essentially a new search interface.  Take the example of retailer John Lewis.  I'd expect that a lot of the search queries are for closed questions to find the address or opening times.  ('When does John Lewis close tonight?', "does John Lewis stock Chanel'  etc).  A bot could take 1,000 of the most popular search queries and for each use natural language AI to try to work out when this question (or similar) is being asked.

You can also see that, for a lot of closed questions like 'When does John Lewis close tonight?' you only need one search results, not pages and pages of them.  Just as 'search' isn't great for vague, open questions like 'What's the best thing to do in London tonight?', it's not that great for questions with one correct answer.

I can also see apps being replaced by bots. Again, imagine a cooking bot, a cocktail bot, or even a city guide bot.  Again you would use questions to select what you wanted 'A cocktail using Gin and Orange Juice', 'Things to do tonight' etc - which is essentially what apps like Mixology and YPlan do.

But I also think that chatbots could turn out to be an absolute nightmare.  In the past month I've had problems (mostly minor) with DVLC, Ryanair, BT, Lambeth Housing and more, and in each case it's been almost impossible to get hold of an actual person who could answer a question, instead I was directed to forums, sent emails from accounts that you couldn't reply to, asked to press numbers on my phone keyboard and so on.

I fear that bots may make this even worse, and will lead to a whole new level of 'computer says no' pain.  It also makes me remember the pain of dealing with (some) grown-ups when I was a child:

- What would you like to drink Daniel?
- I'd like a glass of water please
- Water?  I've never heard of a little boy drinking water before.  Who ever heard of such a thing! I've got some Coca Cola - would you like that?

But let's be positive.  I think that the potential is huge, and it's being done successfully (apparently) in China, where some cities are connected via WeChat - you use messenger to arrange medical appointments and so on.

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