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The Bot Next Door: What the Helper Revolution Means for You

Poncho
Poncho

We’ve reached peak bot. Last week at F8, Facebook’s developer conference, the social network introduced its very own bot plan. Since that’s what everyone’s doing right now — Kik, Telegram, Microsoft — the bots keep coming.

A quick word on bots: They’re pieces of software that automate things. The most recent examples come to us in the form of chatbots — talk to them, and they’ll accomplish common tasks for you.

Some say bots aren’t displacing people and their jobs. Though that’s exactly what scares the world about AI: Technology will eventually get so good, so smart, so human, that it will replace workers. But that’s the future. The bots of right now are just adding a layer of interactivity and efficiency that we didn’t have before.

While introducing chatbots to messaging apps like Kik and Facebook Messenger is the new, hot thing, there have long been people essentially doing what the new class of bots is doing. Live chat support, while not uniformly available, has been a popular feature operated by real, live humans. While chatbots are certainly not a new commodity, their capabilities and sudden popularity are. So could they — and should they — replace live chat operators?

They’re already starting to. Living Actor is a system that uses a combination of bots and live chat operators to help customers with support needs. CEO Benoit Morel says that sites that use Living Actor first engage customers with chatbots. Eventually, if the bots can’t help them, they’re moved to real people to better assist them. “Almost all of our customers started out with phone or live-chat customer support,” Benoit says. “But because it costs so much, they are using a combination now. It cuts down on training costs and email.” One client, Toshiba, was using call centers in different countries for customer support, a costly endeavor. Now that it’s switched to Living Actor, Toshiba has cut costs by nearly 50 percent, according to Benoit.

Benoit is quick to point out that this does not cause a sizable reduction in human jobs. “The goal is not to replace people, it’s just to do all the low-value actions.”

Timur Valishev, CEO of the live chat client JivoChat, has different ideas about the value of chatbots. “I don’t think that we’ve reached the point where we can use computers’ cognitive abilities to solve problems on the same level as a human operator,” he says. “So to compare live chat with bots is like comparing humans with websites. Until a robot passes the Turing test, bots are not more than just another UI paradigm.” Valishev does say, however, that he thinks the combination of chatbots and human support has promising possibilities.

Another thing about bots: They’re essentially re-creating one of the biggest problems we have with customer service. It’s maddening to call one number for this, chat with someone on another site for that — and none of that is changing. You still have to chat with the CNN bot for news, the 1-800-Flowers bot for flowers, the Domino’s bot for pizza. If anything, it’s worse: It’s not just iOS vs. Android, it’s Microsoft vs. Facebook vs. Slack vs. Telegram vs. Kik, and on and on. There’s no centralized system for your needs, no megabot that routes your questions, just like there’s no person who takes your calls or chats, decides who or what you need, and connects you to those essential messages. (There used to be, but we’ve been out-innovating 411 for a while now.)

Bots are new and novel — hell, I think a cat that Facebook-chats me the weather every morning is just as fun as the next person! But this sudden influx is similar to the initial flood of apps, and we’re going to face the same problems with bots: too many of them, and not enough interoperability. Instead of installing too many bots, like we do with apps, you’ll have too many chat screens across too many platforms. It’s going to be a mess.

All is not lost. There’s already a search engine for bots, an equivalent of the App Store, called BotList. But problems with fragmentation remain: Just because you can find a bot doesn’t mean it will be available everywhere. While one of BotList’s creators, Ben Tossell, says some bots are making sure they’re cross-platform (like Poncho the weather cat, even if he is a liar), that’s not going to be the case for most. “We are at the complete infancy,” he says. “Bot commands have been around for ages, but to bring it to consumer level, it’s still very early.”

Most reviews of Facebook’s first bots aren’t great; they just aren’t useful enough yet. Tossell feels the same way, though he thinks things will get better. Imagine a bot, he suggests, that adds Uber to a chat you’re having with a friend so you can request a car without leaving that conversation — and then, when the car arrives, the bot sends you a quick, human-like message. What’s not helpful, Tossell says, is having to open Messenger, search for a bot, start a chat with the bot, and work around its conversational scheme. And that, for the record, is how the chatbots work now.

This piece originally appeared in the April 18, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.