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Why technology companies are betting big on bots

Could internet bots replace apps on your smartphone?

When German computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum wrote a program in the 1960s that was capable of simulating a conversation between a psychiatrist and patient, little did he know his discovery would form the basis of one of today’s most burgeoning technologies. Called Eliza, the software he developed offered plausible responses to common questions, and was perhaps the prequel to what we now know as bots, or chatbots – something many big technology companies are increasingly taking advantage of.

Bots, in the most generic sense, are pieces of software that perform an automated task over the Internet. They are more specifically known as automated applications used to perform simple and repetitive duties that would otherwise be time-consuming, mundane or impossible for a human to perform. Bots mainly exist in many of the places where you communicate, primarily messaging apps that lend themselves to a conversational interface, so it’s not surprising that in this digital age of Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger and Snapchat, that they’re fast becoming commonplace technology.

Messaging bots can not only read and write messages just like a human would, but they can be programmed to carry out automated actions as well as respond to requests from other users; automating conversations, transactions or workflows.

Facebook spring messenger

So bot right now

While we know that bots are clever, it’s important to note that they are becoming increasingly intelligent as the technology powering them sees huge investments from prominent leaders in the industry. The likes of Facebook and Microsoft have already expressed their interest in putting bots at the forefront of their digital strategy in the form of digital contacts on your phone, whom you can text if you want something done.

For example, Spring is a startup bot that was the first to launch in Facebook’s Messenger app. It’s a shopping concierge bot that will tailor shopping options to your price range. Tell it you’re looking for black work shoes under £100, and it will text you a selection of pairs it thinks you may like. It won’t push shoes outside your price range, and remembers your tastes for next time.

Instant messaging and collaboration system, Slack is famed for its successful application of bots. It continues to grow in scale and popularity, thanks to its use of bots that help automate meetings and status updates and more, saving time and increasing productivity.

But thanks to the investments in bots by tech giants, they are becoming increasingly trendy in all sectors, and even more relevant in our fast-paced digital lifestyles. At the SXSW festival last year, hundreds of Tinder users found themselves having a text-message conversation with a woman named Ava, who turned out to be a promotional tool for the sci-fi movie Ex Machina.

Dep. Bot, to your service

The years ahead will see only more applications for bots, not only in the tech industry but across all domains. Experts are predicting the future will bring a host of creative bots that will supercharge our productivity, keep us company, and possibly even make us fall in love.

Microsoft’s experimental Mandarin advanced natural language bot, Xiaoice, is an example of how bots could develop in intelligence in the future. Akin to Samantha in the movie Her, Xiaoice lives inside a smartphone and has intimate conversations with her users, because the program is able to remember details from previous conversations and because it mines the Chinese Internet for human conversations in order to synthesise chat sessions.

However, some developers have taken the human-like virtual life of a bot a little further.  Take Roxxxy, for instance, a real-life manifestation of a chatbot. Roxxxy is an interactive sex bot that is designed by its owner and then implanted with a set of base personalities to match. Owners can then further customise the robot, designing her personality attributes in thousands of ways, so that they reflect the exact needs of her owner.

But as the Future Today Institute’s Tech Trends 2016 report predicts, it’s likely that Bots will do more than offer conversation. The study suggests that in the future, news organisations will soon use bots to sort and tag articles in real time, with advanced bots manipulating social media and stocks simultaneously. It even goes as far as saying the intelligence community could deploy bots for surveillance and for digital diplomacy, with HR managers using bots to train employees. The list is endless.

Build your own bot

In the near future, there might be such a huge demand for bots that instead of waiting for technology companies to build them for us, they will have simply offered up software that enables us to create our own, tailored to our needs.

At Microsoft Build conference, CEO Satya Nadella announced Bot Framework – an open source tool that will allow developers to create their own chatbots. Nadella said he wants every developer to be able to build bots as the new application for every business and every service. These chatbots would integrate with a variety of online platforms, including Skype and Slack. To demonstrate, the company engineered one on stage at the conference and linked it into ordering a pizza from Dominos. It showed how a basic chatbot could help you pick toppings for a pizza rather than selecting from a menu on a website.

In the meantime, could we see these ever-developing and intelligent services replace the need to download apps? Bots offer attractive benefits such as de-cluttering our mobile experience, sending us a message when we need to know or respond to something, with the allure of staying invisible otherwise, without needing any user action.

Microsoft bot

Bots vs apps?

A future with personalised bots, made by us, for us, could mean your shopping, scheduling, tracking, monitoring and messaging in the coming years will be automated according to personal preferences, something that could prove much more inviting than the idea of an apps and an app store, for instance, initiating a conversation with the bot is the same as starting a chat with a friend; there’s no download required. As a result, it feels like the most natural way to communicate and transact. Instead of looking for apps to fit our lifestyles, it could be that we develop bots around our lifestyle, to complete the same tasks.

But for the time being, our vast app ecosystem and how we use it is going nowhere. Every messaging interface in any application is a channel for humans and bots to interact. More and more channels emerge every day where bots thrive in an app ecosystem, demonstrating a working space where they both live in harmony to service our needs.

The big opportunity for service providers building bots and bot platforms lies in servicing users through all these interfaces, so, for now, there’s very much still a need for apps. They are, and for a long time remain, the basic platform in which bots can operate, giving easy access for users and acting as a breeding ground for developers to experiment with new features and grow bots’ intelligence.

By Lee Bell,

With over five years’ experience in the technology industry covering the latest innovations in gadgets, computer chips, internet security, telecoms, and start-ups, Lee Bell works as a freelance journalist in London’s buzzing tech scene. He writes news, features, and reviews for a host of consumer titles including The Daily Mirror, The Metro, Wired UK, Computer Shopper, IT Pro and Gizmodo.

Lee’s main interests lay in the innovations space, focusing on the latest advances in consumer tech, social media, apps, virtual reality, the internet of Things (IoT), and more recently, space and science.

You can catch Lee tweeting as @llebeel

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