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Why Facebook Bots Stink (So Far)

Last week, Facebook launched its new bot platform — a system built inside its Messenger app that lets users interact and speak with automated programs. The bots can relay the news, report the weather, and sell you stuff, among other things. They are, for multiple large tech companies, the next big trend in personal computing.

And as of right now, they’re pretty sucky.

This has been reported regularly since the bots rolled out last week. The Verge called Facebook bots “the slowest way to use the internet,” criticizing the Wall Street Journal’s bot for its minutes-long latency (a valid criticism; minutes are crazy-long in an industry that measures itself in milliseconds).

Evaluating Poncho, a weather bot, Gizmodo criticized it for being unable to parse conversation that was, in human terms, relatively simple.

Sam Mandel, the CEO of Poncho, says less than 24 hours after the bot launched, they’ve already run into unanticipated problems. But he agrees that Poncho has lots of language skills to learn. “We need to add more natural language processing, and that’s what we’re working on right now.” Mendel told Gizmodo. “Because tolerance for a mediocre bot is much less than for a mediocre app.”

The issues come with the territory, but they’re made all the more frustrating because of Facebook’s near-spotless reputation when it comes to technical implementation. Facebook almost never goes offline, and each new product it introduces (live video, most recently) generally works without a hitch. Facebook has been able to capture users, attention, and advertisers by having an extremely reliable stack.

So when bots don’t function as anticipated, it might be because we are conflating “Facebook bots” with “Facebook’s bots.” Bots like Poncho’s and the Wall Street Journal’s run on Facebook’s platform, but are not engineered or maintained by Facebook; they’re third-party.

This might be obvious, but again, when you’re using a first-party Facebook service, the glitches and frustrations seem less forgivable. This used to be flipped: you’d go to a third-party site and log in with Facebook. Now, you go to Facebook and use it to message third-party sites.

When a bot like Poncho is acting sluggish or unresponsive, that’s not a product of Facebook’s platform, that’s a result of lackluster third-party implementation. Bots are not an A-B conversation with a server in Palo Alto. They’re more like an A-B-C-D-E-F-G conversation between a handful of web locations. When you ask for a news update from CNN, for example, you send a message, which goes to Facebook, which goes to CNN, which processes it, determines a response, maybe queries additional servers to gather more data to include in the response, then sends it back to Facebook, which sends it back to you. Duh, simple.

Even Facebook can’t explain why bots are slow right now, because they’re acting as a go-between. Speaking with the Verge, Messenger head David Marcus said, “[Latency] should be less than five seconds. We picked Poncho because we like the thing, because it’s a really cool experience. But maybe their server’s just slammed with people trying the weather cat. I have no idea what’s actually happening, but I’m assuming that might be the case.” (Emphasis added.) There are yet-unknown infrastructure challenges related to this emerging format.

On top of that general complexity, it should be noted explicitly: Natural language processing (NLP) is hard. Tokenizing statements (breaking them into pieces to be analyzed) and deriving instruction is not an easy task for systems designed to follow a specific set of instructions. The workload required for effective NLP might also explain why Facebook is making its AI toolsets available to developers.

The shaky bot rollout points to a large and growing tension with Facebook (insomuch as Facebook, the market leader by a country mile, feels tension). As they transition from a portal into their own content platform, they’re turning over important aspects of the service to third parties. That means we might get stuck with glitchy bots on a technical level, or crappy articles and video on the Instant Articles and Live platforms, respectively. For all of its internal technical prowess, Facebook can’t tightly control how developers and content makers use of its system. In short, the company is placing its spotless reputation for stability in the hands of millions of third-party providers, many of them amateur or less focused on the Facebook experience than, well, Facebook itself.

All of this is to say that bots are new and they’re not made by Facebook. They’re made by coders and engineers who might just be as unfamiliar with the conversational UI paradigm as you or I. They suck now, and I have no doubt that they’ll get better. But that’s always been the case with technology.