The software world is all atwitter about the latest technology to head their way: bots. Touted by some as the next evolution of apps and others as the critical first step in enabling realistic human-to-machine interactions, bots have become the hot new topic du jour. Featured recently by Microsoft at their Build conference, predicted to be further discussed by Facebook at their F8 conference, and already in reasonably wide use by messaging platforms such as Twitter, WeChat, Slack and others, bots are seen as an exciting outgrowth of recent advancements in AI (artificial intelligence).
Conceptually, the idea of an automated electronic assistant that excels at performing specific tasks is certainly an appealing one. Bots that could take the place of those widely despised automated customer service systems we all have had to interact with on the telephone, for example, might be a godsend in comparison. However, most efforts toward more intelligent automated telephony support have been a dismal failure resulting in desperate cries for a human operator.
Some web-based support systems are a bit better but most of the ones that are actually useful are staffed by real people. Now, that’s great for you and me as customers, but expensive and often difficult to scale for companies who use them. So, there’s clearly a business incentive to drive the creation of automated bots that could perform across a variety of different communications mediums and platforms.
But I have to admit I get concerned about how far this could go. For one thing, the idea of certain kinds of bots proactively reaching out to me when I don’t initiate the conversation could get annoying (and time consuming) very quickly. The notion of bot spam is fairly disconcerting and yet, utterly predictable.[pullquote]The notion of bot spam is fairly disconcerting and yet, utterly predictable.”[/pullquote]
More important though, is the question of how many bots people can and would be able to interact with. Right now, much of the discussion around bots seems to suggest they focus on doing one specific task, such as creating a flight reservation or booking a good restaurant with an available opening.
To a point, that’s fine and good. Very quickly, however, it’s not difficult to imagine getting overwhelmed by bot requests and interactions, not all of which will probably even work the same way. Plus, unlike mobile apps, which you consciously have to choose to download and use, interactions with bots could very well be foisted upon us. The mere act of visiting a web site could immediately launch an interaction with a bot.
In some instances, the additional level of support and help which that bot interaction might enable could prove to be very useful but if we already know what we want to do, it could serve as interference and actually slow us down. Obviously, bot designers will need to take these kinds of permutations into consideration as they develop their bots. But as the technology first ramps up, and before some of these lessons are learned, I have a feeling there could be a lot of frustrating bot interactions.
Part of the problem is there will likely be different kinds of bots on different platforms. In theory, of course, any bot should be able to handle normal human interactions, rendering platform differences moot. But the realistic application of technology never really works this way. As a result, either the subtle differences in how bot-type services get deployed across different platforms or the kinds of lock-in strategies various platforms will likely leverage to drive higher usage for themselves are bound to get in the way of our early bot encounters.
As platforms standardize and leaders rise to the surface, these issues could fade away, particularly if companies can create a solution that makes using tens or even hundreds of individual bots feel like natural extensions to a single experience. In the interim however, I expect we’ll see some vigorous new platform battles that will keep our bot interactions from achieving the kind of awe-inspiring wizardry of which they are potentially capable.