Why bots will soon run your world

Bots, pro­grammes that are able to sim­u­late con­ver­sa­tion, are set to play a much big­ger role in your life.

Finweek English Edition - - THE WEEK - Editorial@fin­week.co.za

bored? Need a va­ca­tion? A new pair of run­ning shoes, per­haps? Soon, there will be a bot for that. Al­ready be­ing hailed as a pos­si­ble new fron­tier for busi­nesses, re­tail­ers and savvy mar­keters, sev­eral tech jug­ger­nauts are re­port­edly bet­ting big on bots.

For the unini­ti­ated, a bot is soft­ware that au­to­mates things you would nor­mally do on your own. Like book­ing that week­end get­away, find­ing an In­dian restau­rant in your area, and even the more mun­dane tasks such as adding a meet­ing to your cal­en­dar. The bot X.ai, for ex­am­ple, will sched­ule meet­ings for you – if you add the bot to your email thread it will take over that te­dious back-and-forth con­ver­sa­tion needed to fi­nalise a meet­ing, no­tify you once it’s been ar­ranged and add it to your cal­en­dar.

The most fa­mil­iar form of bots, “chat­bots”, sim­u­late con­ver­sa­tion – and most of us have al­ready en­coun­tered them on web­sites as the cheer­ful on­line as­sis­tant. In­deed, they of­ten ex­ist in­side mes­sag­ing apps – and the point is to feel like you’re chat­ting with a hu­man (in­stead of a ma­chine that is tak­ing its cues from reams of data).

An es­tab­lished au­di­ence

While bots have ac­tu­ally been around for some time, there are a cou­ple of fac­tors that are now bring­ing them into sharper fo­cus. For one, the ever-in­creas­ing pop­u­lar­ity of mo­bile mes­sag­ing apps such as What­sApp, Face­book Mes­sen­ger, WeChat and Slack rep­re­sents a lu­cra­tive op­por­tu­nity for com­pa­nies to em­bed bots and cre­ate new rev­enue streams. Take Face­book Mes­sen­ger, for ex­am­ple, which is the sec­ond-most pop­u­lar app on iOS, and was the fastest­grow­ing app in the US in 2015. Last month, Face­book in­tro­duced bots for the plat­form.

“Bots can pro­vide any­thing from au­to­mated sub­scrip­tion con­tent like weather and traf­fic up­dates, to cus­tomised com­mu­ni­ca­tions like re­ceipts, ship­ping no­ti­fi­ca­tions, and live au­to­mated mes­sages all by in­ter­act­ing di­rectly with the peo­ple who want to get them,” ex­plained David Mar­cus, vice pres­i­dent of mes­sag­ing prod­ucts at Face­book.

An­other pos­si­ble fac­tor be­hind the rise of the bots is what many are call­ing “app fa­tigue”. Most of us have at least five apps and eight web­pages open at any given mo­ment – and a smart chat­bot should be able to elim­i­nate (or at least min­imise) our need for all of them. Why trawl through so many dif­fer­ent apps when you can get the same in­for­ma­tion by sim­ply pos­ing a ques­tion to your smart­phone or iPad’s chat­bot?

An oft-cited ex­am­ple in the re­tail sphere is the mes­sag­ing ap­pli­ca­tion Kik, which has launched a “Bot Shop” – de­scribed as a “mar­ket­place that takes the form of an app store for users to bet­ter find chat­bot of­fer­ings from of­fi­cial mar­keters”. Ma­jor brands such as H&M, Sephora and Weather Chan­nel have ex­ist­ing bots fea­tured on the Kik Bot Shop.

Watch this space

So what does the rise of the bot mean for busi­nesses, brands and mar­keters?

“The value-add is po­ten­tially huge…from a user per­spec­tive, chat­ting within a mes­sen­ger en­vi­ron­ment is some­thing most peo­ple are al­ready com­fort­able do­ing so the learn­ing curve is fairly flat,” ex­plains Scott Gray, ex­pe­ri­ence di­rec­tor at lo­cal dig­i­tal agency Quirk. “Se­condly, from a busi­ness per­spec­tive, be­ing able to of­fer ser­vices that can be au­to­mated could rep­re­sent both big cost-sav­ing ad­van­tages (think about the call cen­tre of the fu­ture) as well as mas­sive gains in ser­vice ef­fi­ciency – which pos­i­tively im­pacts the user’s per­cep­tion of the brand.”

In his view, the space to watch is the fastim­prov­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence realm, where bots will be able to process more nat­u­ral lan­guage “as well as un­der­stand more about you as a per­son”.

“Bots are likely to be­come per­sonal as­sis­tants that can rec­om­mend and even trans­act on your be­half,” he adds. “Cou­ple this with the Internet of Things (where many de­vices are ‘talk­ing’ to each other in real-time) and you might get to the point where it’s quite nat­u­ral to have a chat to your home’s bot…who can tell you that you may need milk, the alarm is go­ing off, there’s some­one ring­ing your door­bell, and the elec­tric­ity me­ter is about to run out (‘Do you want to top up with the usual amount?’).”

As with many fast-emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies, how­ever, bots will surely en­counter a host of reg­u­la­tory chal­lenges as they be­gin to take over var­i­ous tasks and in­fil­trate our per­sonal lives. Gray cites the ex­am­ples of fi­nance, law and med­i­cal care – where the po­ten­tial for bots is high, but where reg­u­la­tion is un­der­stand­ably both crit­i­cal and com­plex.

Scott Gray Ex­pe­ri­ence di­rec­tor at Quirk

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