The Age of the Chatbot

Chatbots have evolved greatly over the past few years, but developments are coming which could truly change the game.

If you should receive a message from a personal assistant called Andrew, there’s a good chance you’re interacting with one of the hot new trends hitting business. Chatbots are coming and they are set to change the way we live, shop and do business.

Andrew is an artificial personal assistant equipped to mimic human speech and to learn as he goes. He comes from a start-up called, which is one of a host of new development companies paving the way for the next generation of chatbots. They are, of course, nothing new – they’ve been with us for decades, ever since Joseph Weizenbaum created ‘Eliza’, a computer with the ability to mimic human interaction. But now the technology is more sophisticated and businesses are learning to make use of them.

You’ll find chatbots being used in just about every area of business: from personal assistants, such as Andrew, to other roles in healthcare, fashion, travel, retail, and much more. Here are just a few examples of how they are transforming the landscape:

Retail: Retail outlets are harnessing chatbots to improve their customer service. One of the most successful comes from H&M, and uses a series of questions to help customers choose the right outfit for them.

Healthcare: A host of start-ups are using artificial intelligence to revolutionise the way patients interact with doctors. YourMD, for example, has a chatbot which uses machine learning and language recognition software to engage effectively with patients. The potential is enormous. These bots can remind patients to take medication, resolve simple queries without the need of an appointment, and check up on a patient’s condition.

Automated assistants: As well as, other apps, such as Talla, offer virtual personal assistants who can do everything from schedule meetings to arrange travel.

Recruitment: Companies are using more freelancers. TARA is an automated project manager which can assign a project to a set of screened professional freelancers. Cyra also uses machine learning, to ensure employers receive a list of ideal candidates for any position. Chatbots are a great way to manage a more fluid and mobile workforce while taking the load off HR teams.

Travel: Concierge services such as Pana can make travel much easier. They can monitor your journey, spot any potential delays, and rebook flights if necessary.

Workplace: Workplaces are also bringing in chatbots to improve employee engagement. Slack is developing messaging chatbots, which can help employees book travel, manage documents, answer queries, explore sales leads or resolve technical problems, all with a messaging interface which is as easy as speaking to one of their colleagues. They would no longer have to switch between multiple apps for separate tasks – instead the chatbot messaging system can bring these all together.

Legal: Chatbots can help people get quick legal advice for simple issues. The new site DoNotPay, for example, has already helped thousands of people avoid parking fines.

Lifestyle: This is a more general term, but people can use chatbots for every aspect of their day-to-day lives. Often this involves solutions they never knew they wanted. One of the more bizarre is Eternime, an app which creates an avatar of a person and mimics speech and personality so that you can continue talking with them long after they are gone.

There are two kinds of chatbots. The first uses artificial intelligence to learn and develop; the other uses multiple-choice questions to help produce a more personalised experience.

The first has some way to go before it’s truly ready to transform the mainstream. Just ask Microsoft Corporation, who created their own chatbot ‘Tay’ partly as an experiment with the technology and as a way of engaging millennials. Operating via Twitter, Tay used machine learning and could engage people in conversations. Unfortunately, Tay had to be taken offline after only a few hours as its personality veered dangerously to the right, with messages supportive of Hitler and Donald Trump.

There have been false starts, but true innovation is never without its hiccups. Looking into the future, chatbots have enormous potential for businesses. They can offer one-to-one customer service to thousands of people, without taking up the time of human staff.

They can be available 24/7 and provide customers with an instant response to any query, no matter what the time. In the workplace, they can improve staff satisfaction and productivity, by resolving simple questions more quickly and bringing several functions under one umbrella.

What’s causing the most excitement is that we’ve only just begun to explore their possibilities.

The technology is moving quickly. Complex AI algorithms will enable chatbots to respond naturally to people and to recognise natural speech and various dialects. They will also attempt to develop a personality so that the next generation of apps can be not only effective, but also likeable. The age of the chatbot, then, is truly upon us.

© Andrei Zaripov, Sebastien Decoret via 123rf

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