Chatbots in itself are by far not a new phenomenon. The generally recognized first chatbot appeared as early as in 1966. It had a name ELIZA and responded largely by rephrasing questions posed to it. 60s-80s saw a few more bots, but the actual popularity came to bots from mid 90s onwards. They appeared mostly in chats like ICQ, Yahoo, MSN, and many of them were quite sophisticated already – they could update you on weather forecasting, be your private English language tutor or even offer you customer support to some extent. Even though some people think they went dormant for at least a decade until recently, in reality, chatbots have always been present.
So, having bots in messaging apps like Telegram or Messenger is actually nothing new, and what they did back then is similar to what they do now. Why then chatbots became such a hot topic this year that every company seems to rush into building its own bot, some publications throw around phrases like “This is the Year of the Bot”, and Slack announced a $80 million fund to encourage developers to build among other things bot services for its communication tool?
Chatbots are now not just “cool, and hip, and fun”
It’s worth starting by exploring what recently emerged bots can do in the first place. And it turns out, they can do A LOT. Without leaving your messaging app, you can buy a plane ticket, book a medical appointment, order an Uber ride or pre-order a taco to pick it up at the nearest Taco Bell location. Facebook, for example, is reportedly working with Bank of America, Burger King and Staples to improve shopping experience for its users via bots in Messenger. Gosh, you can even apply for a job through a bot!
Surely, one would wonder why people would use a bot of all things to perform any of the above. Why not just open the Uber or the United Airlines app? It’s not like you’re living in your chat app, you have to open it just the same. Yet, a simple test with most companies’ apps shows that it takes you at least half a dozen clicks to get what you want. With a bot, it can be just one quick text message. Or imagine you’re ordering pizza for yourself and your friends: With a bot, there is no switching between the chat, checking what pizza toppings your friends want to have, and the pizza delivery app.
A chatbot just saves your time, making your life easier and more comfortable in so many aspects, and isn’t it what we all like?
So, when thinking about the sudden rise in popularity of chatbots, it’s now easy to see the WHY. If previously chatbots could chat with you or give you some information you were looking for, now they can actually DO things for you with the smallest possible effort on your side. But there is even more to that.
4 fundamental factors ensuring popularity of bots
Messaging apps probably get opened more often than any other app. It doesn’t mean people spend more time there than, say, on Facebook or Instagram, but exactly this high frequency of sessions brings a huge potential. So, the first factor is the rising popularity and usage of messaging apps. And what can better illustrate this than the much talked about acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook in 2014 for the unbelievable $ 22 billion. While seemingly being insane, this acquisition made a lot of sense to Facebook itself as it was buying about 500 million active users, with 1 million new users coming daily. Active user growth was the decisive metric for the most popular social network provider. And indeed, as of February 2016, WhatsApp is used by 1 billion people – reaching this milestone way faster than it has been estimated.
Growing interest and recent breakthroughs in the fields of AI and speech recognition make up for the second and third factors. Chatbots can now actually learn over time to give more accurate and intelligent responses, even though there is still enough to aim for. Speech recognition, while also being still far from perfect, has improved significantly over the last few years. Baidu, for example, made an impressive breakthrough by launching Deep Speech 2, a speech recognition engine that is able to recognize standard Chinese, which is amazing taking into consideration that Chinese words are distinguished by tones. And while not all chatbots work with voice commands, this trend is actually growing too, and the Chinese market is certainly a trendsetter in this respect.
Last but not least, with cloud computing and integration technology getting so advanced, it’s now possible to ensure a solid integration of various apps into a chatbot and a reliable communication between them using APIs. So, in a way, getting MailChimp mailing list automatically updated after each new online shop registration is not different from asking Kayak in the Slack to check flights from New Orlean to Seattle from May 14 to May 28.
From private chat rooms to corporate offices
What is absolutely remarkable about chatbots, though, is that they are now increasingly used in the corporate context. This topic certainly deserves a little bit of more scrutiny, and that is why I’m getting back to it in my next article next week. Stay tuned.