THE TALK OF THE TOWN

Chat­bots the lat­est trend in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence

Ottawa Business Journal - Techopia - - Front Page - BY MICHAEL WOODS

The days of di­al­ing 1-800 num­bers could soon be over, thanks to the lat­est trend in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence – and Ottawa com­pa­nies are em­brac­ing the craze headon.

The rise of chat­bots means peo­ple can or­der food, hail an Uber, buy a plane ticket or even ap­ply for a job by chat­ting with a bot on a mes­sag­ing plat­form.

Part of the think­ing is that younger, more tech-savvy cus­tomers are more in­clined to use a chat­ting ser­vice than call an ac­tual per­son for help.

Chat­bots them­selves aren’t a new phe­nom­e­non; they have been around in one form or an­other since the 1960s. But the ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of mes­sag­ing apps and break­throughs in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and speech recog­ni­tion have helped them be­come the hottest new tech trend.

At its F8 con­fer­ence ear­lier this year, Facebook an­nounced it was launch­ing Mes­sen­ger Plat­form, a new chat­bot ser­vice. It has been a hit with de­vel­op­ers so far.

“I think it just re­quires a lit­tle bit of aware­ness, and Facebook is cre­at­ing it,” said Michael Gol­ubev, CEO of Ot­tawabased 3Dprintler. “In a year or two, peo­ple won’t even re­mem­ber what it was like to call some toll-free num­ber and be on hold.”

3Dprintler, founded in Au­gust 2012, helps con­nect cus­tomers with 3D print­ing ser­vice providers. Gol­ubev has de­scribed the com­pany as “Kayak meets TripAd­vi­sor for 3D print­ing ser­vices, on steroids.”

3Dprintler launched a chat­bot-en­abled 3D-print­ing search en­gine ear­lier this year, which it pre­sented at the TechCrunch Dis­rupt con­fer­ence in Brook­lyn last month.

“Bots just be­came this huge door that gave us ac­cess to over two bil­lion users com­bined on all those net­works,” Gol­ubev said in an in­ter­view. “Con­ver­sa­tional com­merce is this next big branch of com­merce that we see be­ing de­vel­oped, and it cre­ates huge op­por­tu­ni­ties for mar­ket­ing, for de­liv­er­ing and or­der­ing goods.”

By con­vers­ing with the bot, users can com­pare prices for lo­cal 3D print­ing ser­vices, place or­ders, track pur­chases and leave re­views, all with­out leav­ing the mes­sag­ing app of choice. (It’s avail­able on Facebook Mes­sen­ger, Kik, Slack and Skype, among other ser­vices).

On av­er­age, there’s a 56 per cent bet­ter con­ver­sion rate us­ing the chat­bot than us­ing the web­site, Gol­ubev said.

“It’s such a dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment,” he said. “It’s al­most like chat­ting with your buddy, and he’s help­ing you con­vert the file and get the best price.”

In April, Shopify an­nounced it was build­ing com­merce bots for Facebook Mes­sen­ger. A day later, it ac­quired the pri­vately held startup Kit CRM, a com­pany that helps busi­nesses com­mu­ni­cate with their cus­tomers through chat.

“We be­lieve mes­sag­ing apps are the gate­way for the in­ter­net on mo­bile, and con­ver­sa­tional com­merce rep­re­sents a huge op­por­tu­nity for Shopify,” Craig Miller, Shopify’s chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer, said in a state­ment at the time.

While de­vel­op­ers have flocked to Facebook’s new plat­form, the road to a chat­bot-dom­i­nated com­merce world won’t al­ways be smooth.

When Mi­crosoft’s Twit­ter chat­bot “Tay” was re­leased in March, it soon started spout­ing racist and sex­u­ally-charged mes­sages in re­sponse to other Twit­ter users. Mi­crosoft blamed a “co-or­di­nated ef­fort by some users,” and the bot was taken down 16 hours af­ter it launched.

But as mes­sag­ing plat­forms con­tinue to gain pop­u­lar­ity and the tech­nol­ogy im­proves, chat­bots will cer­tainly be­come more ubiq­ui­tous.

Gol­ubev has a vi­sion of the near fu­ture when ev­ery­one has a phone with a 3D scan­ner built in and lo­cal mi­cro-fac­to­ries man­u­fac­ture 3D-printed prod­ucts. That’s when he thinks the con­sumer side of 3Dprintler will take off.

But un­til that hap­pens, the com­pany is tar­get­ing the busi­ness-to-busi­ness mar­ket.

“The big­gest thing we hear right now from For­tune 500 com­pa­nies is they want to be in­volved in 3D print­ing, but they don’t un­der­stand how,” he said. “Un­til the mar­ket fully ma­tures, that’s where the money is.”

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