Bots Are Back

Image of an Amazon Alexa with logos for brands that contribute to Alexa functionality.
Chatbots are nothing new; they have been around since the time of AOL’s Instant Messenger (AIM). But modern chatbots can be interfaced with verbally rather than through text like their predecessors. Siri is an example of a bot that got people used to asking their phones questions in natural language. Phil Libin, co-founder of Evernote, describes bots as “interactive services that provide a conversational experience.” Companies such as Microsoft and Facebook believe that the next new way to interface with computers will be through natural language; both companies announced tools for developers to build bots at their respective developer conferences earlier this year. After seeing the runaway hit that the Amazon Echo became, they may be onto something.

The Amazon Echo is a cylindrical speaker with a seven-piece microphone array so that it can hear commands from a greater distance than your phone. You issue commands by saying the wake word, Alexa, followed by a command. Out of the box, you can set timers, play music from Amazon’s music service or add items to your Amazon shopping cart. But what has led to the success of the Echo is the ability to add new “skills” and how easy Amazon has made the process of developing a new skill. Some examples of third-party skills include the Domino’s Pizza skill to order a pizza, the Jeopardy! skill to quiz you and the Uber skill to order a car. The ability to speak an order or query and not have to pull out your phone, find the app for the needed task and then interact with the app allows you to add items to your shopping list while you are busy cooking or order an Uber while still getting ready for a night out.

It is still early days for Facebook’s bots, which are less artificial intelligence and more preprogrammed responses. The lack of understanding from a bot can lead to frustration for the user and abandonment. With the tools Microsoft and Facebook provide, pretty soon a user will not have to learn the interface of an app or navigate a website, but instead will learn the natural language query structure for a particular bot to order a bouquet of flowers or check traffic conditions before traveling.


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