What Are Bots? An FAQ for Our Impending Technofuture

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If you’ve been paying attention to recent announcements from any of the major tech companies, then you’ve probably heard something about “bots.” Just yesterday, Facebook announced a new “bot platform” built on its messaging service, the idea being that its Messenger app can be more than just a device for chatting with friends. (Among other things, it can be the app you spend most of your time looking at on your phone, which would make Facebook happy.)

It’s a funny new moment, watching Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon all seemingly agree with one another that “bots” are the future of tech — especially if you’ve spent any time trying to talk with the rudimentary bots of the past, like the AOL Instant Messenger bot SmarterChild or, God help us, Microsoft Office’s Clippy. But when the Frightful Five all align, it’s worth paying attention. What are bots? Why should you care? Am I a bot? Are you? Read on to find out!

What is a bot?
Bots, as in, yes, robots, are automated programs that perform tasks for you automatically. You feed a bot an input — usually a question or an order — and, assuming it works, it’ll spit out a result or perform a function.

These days, people generally use bot to refer specifically to chatbots. A chatbot is exactly what it sounds like: a program that you control and interact with using language, by “chatting” with it rather than by clicking buttons and tapping icons. (Non-chatbots like Twitter bots can function to produce odd and enigmatic tweets automatically without any direct human input.)

In theory, bots are able to understand exactly what a user is trying to do, and help them along the way.

In reality, most bots have been like Clippy, the Dreamhaunter.

Clippy ruined my life. Why is Clippy back?
Well, first of all, Clippy’s not
back, despite what a recent Bloomberg cover story would have you believe. But the idea that animated Clippy (metaphorically speaking) is.

A program that can understand what users are doing (like “It looks like you’re writing a letter”) and predict what they want (maybe not like “Would you like some help?”) could be extremely useful, not to mention profitable to large tech companies. Conversational user interfaces are good for mobile, where limited screen space prevents programs from using large and complicated interfaces. At the same time, computing is finally reaching a state where it can mostly understand, process, and respond to human language, thanks to the fairly recent ability of companies to do that complicated work “server-side,” on networked computers that can handle much more demanding tasks than your phone.

Finally, but most important, it’s potentially a way to make money. For commerce bots, for example, it’s not difficult to envision companies like Facebook or Microsoft taking a cut of transactions that occur over their chatbot platforms. Even if those companies can’t successfully insert themselves as middlemen in consumer deals, good and useful bots mean more time spent in a program by a user; more time means, eventually — fingers crossed — more money.

You might have already experienced a very rudimentary version of a bot by texting your bank to check your balance. Sending certain key words — BALANCE, HELP, UNSUBSCRIBE — to a number performs an action and, if necessary, returns requested information, without requiring the user to log in to a website or call up a teller. Siri, Apple’s iPhone personal assistant, is a kind of bot, as is Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa. Newer bots want a scenario where you can say something like, “How much did I spend at Chipotle in the past six months?” and get in response an exact (and possibly depressing) answer.

And this is now the Big Tech Thing for 2016?
Yeah, pretty much. For tech companies, making this kind of conversational user interface, or UI (expect to see that term with increasing frequency), mainstream can lead to a lot of other interesting opportunities down the line.

Services like Kik and Facebook Messenger are weaving bots into their messaging services, so they can become a go-between for other companies and their customers. Facebook launched integration for third-party bots this week, so users can receive news from The Wall Street Journal or place an order with 1-800-Flowers.

Sephora, for example, has a bot for the chat app Kik that lets users chat with “the company” (really just a text-parsing program) about its products. Taco Bell, always quick to use new technology to sell its sins against meat, announced it’s been working on a bot for the work-chat app Slack that would let users order tacos with a simple text command.

Microsoft has its sights set on even loftier ambitions. It wants to make a bot framework that could be the tool set from which all chatbots are constructed, making bot creation available to people who possess limited coding experience or perhaps none at all. Should the shift to chatbots be as big as companies are predicting, Microsoft could have a huge first-mover advantage. If it can get people using its software to develop bots, it can probably start extracting revenue from the program at some point in the future.

Of course, so far all Microsoft has done is produce a “teen” bot that turned into an insane genocidal racist.

All these bots are for commerce?
No. Some bots are for information or other small tasks, like a bot that texts you when it’s about to rain, or one that realizes you haven’t yet paid your rent this month and reminds you.

User convenience is a big selling point for bots. Rather than having to flip through separate apps and websites and UIs, a user can just, well, ask for something. And with AI growing more and more capable each day, the requests they can make can grow more and more complex as well.

That being said, bots will eventually have to make money, just like the Weather Channel, and it seems likely that some informational bots will be directly monetized in some way or another (like, at the most obvious end of the spectrum, ads sent in the midst of conversation).

What does this mean for me?
If you’re not already using some sort of messaging service now, you will be soon. Kik, Slack, Facebook Messenger, and Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp are all embracing bots. They could very well become, in a sense, the 2016 equivalent of AOL keywords — “schedule a test drive on Kik, username: Lexus.”

Wrap it up. Bore me with some good-ass tech talk.
Another advantage for bots is that they operate server-side via the cloud. Your request gets beamed across the internet, where a server with much more processing power than your phone analyzes the data (text, photo, audio) received and generates a response. Rather than having to update an app, software changes are simply pushed to the server that you’re talking to, all without you having to do anything. If everything goes as planned, client-side software updates will appear less and less often.

What Are Bots? An FAQ