artificial intelligence, Semantics

To Bot, Or Not To Bot


Are Bots the Future of Computing?

Bots — simple computer-based [micro] services that you interact with conversationally — are being hailed by some as the next wave of computing, a profound platform shift and the most exciting technology since the iPhone.

Microsoft this week became the latest technology provider to strategically embrace bots and offer a framework for developing them. Microsoft joins Facebook, Slack, WeChat, Kik and many others. In Microsoft’s case, as with several others, bots are a part of a continued push into a broad set of technologies centered around artificial intelligence or AI.

But let’s forget AI for a moment. This trend towards functional capabilities delivered as well-bounded, discrete services goes back at least as far as IT concepts such as object-oriented programming and  component-based development (think of a method or web service like “CheckBalance” or “MakeDeposit”). To some degree this basic idea is also manifest in app connection frameworks such as IFTTT and associated app integration platforms like Zapier. The rapid trend towards hosting services in cloud environments and making them easily accessible through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) has now provided much of the infrastructure or connective tissue to enable the rise of bots.

If you’re a business looking at where technology is headed as part of your product strategy, you may be asking if bots are likely to truly transform digital products and whether that’s a good or a bad thing. Personally I think they have the potential to be transformative and that they will indeed be a good thing. As with other major tech disruptions, the transformation will almost certainly not happen overnight and as it goes mainstream it won’t necessarily look like this first wave of the technology. But I’m convinced bots are coming (some are here already) and smart businesses should start now exploring the opportunities that will come from building products using a bot model.

Wait, I thought Bots Were Bad????

We’re not talking here about hijacked PCs running programs whose sole purpose is to spew SPAM, or other automated programs that ‘mindlessly’ push pre-programmed content. The bots coming onto the scene now are helpful software agents, with many of them embodying at least some form of intelligence. By that I mean they have the ability to interpret a request for a service and to respond appropriately with relevant information, content or actions. Here’s the clincher in my mind: the services these bots perform need to offer real identifiable value to the user who is interacting with the bot.

Why Is This Happening Now? You Might Ask

In a world where everything is becoming an endpoint, bots are the little engines that interpret incoming signals — in context– and provide responses or initiate outbound actions. Think about the streams of data generated by Internet of Things (IoT) based sensors and all the data traffic traveling through messaging services.  This data is not just valuable en masse for historical or predictive analytics. It can be put to more immediate, localized and personalized use. Whether pinged directly through a single trigger word or command, or more passively activated using AI to interpret a chunk of data in a message, bots are driven by actionable data [intelligently] understood within a context. The ubiquity of devices such as sensors, beacons and smartphones, along with omnipresent network connections, always-on communications channels, vast sources of content and publicly-accessible APIs have all reached a tipping point of availability and maturity to support human interaction with the world in a way that is augmented by automated software agents – bots.

While the bots may be stand-alone services, to support a critical mass of them they need to be hosted within a platform that either resides in or interfaces with our existing communications channels. Today that takes the form of smart phone OSs, SMS/text messaging services, social messaging services such as Facebook Messenger, Kik, WeChat and Line, and/or virtual personal assistants such as Google Now, Microsoft Cortana or Amazon Echo’s Alexa. Virtual personal assistants can be thought of as universal or generalized bots that orchestrate or intermediate more specialized sub-bots. Mobile payment services such as Apple Pay are also contributing to the trend. Although simple text is sufficient as a basic user interface to bots, advances in natural language interpretation and understanding, and in voice recognition and speech synthesis provide additional, richer ways for humans and bots to interact. The technology then is wholly or largely existent today. Given the sheer volume of data and APIs, we need technology just to handle that volume. Technology also offers the opportunity to both simplify and augment our personal and business communications and transactions. So arguably the demand side of the equation exists now, too.

Should My Business Dive In Now or Wait?

It’s early days and a lot remains to be ironed out, particularly in terms of bot platforms. Every technology provider seems to be doing their own platform, there are few or no standards and little if any integration across platforms. There will be successes and failures and shakeouts. So it’s too early to jump in, right? Absolutely not! Any business that isn’t venturing into this space risks missing the boat as the wave of bots washes in. There are ways to venture into this space that mitigate the risk, while providing valuable revenue and experience to businesses and real value to their customers. Here are a few tips for getting started:

  1. Start by creating bots from services that your business already has exposed as APIs or single-function apps
  2. Focus on bots that are easy for your customers to understand and use, and that provide real, identifiable value to your customers. It’s okay if the service is simple and the value is small, like providing limited sets of information or content in response to specific customer requests or focusing on a commonly performed task with a small, fixed number of options
  3. Design your bots conceptually, then implement them initially on 1 or 2 platforms within communications channels where your customers are most active and where your business has experience, presence and familiarity. That could be SMS/text messaging for a single telecom carrier or mobile OS, or an in-message bot command embedded in one of the messaging services like Kik or Skype
  4. Let your customers know they are part of something new and that you value their input and feedback. Make the experience fun for your customers, and for your product team, too
  5. Don’t get too far ahead in setting goals and expectations. Monitor your initial bot experiences, using your own tools or through the analytics that are provided as part of a bot platform or delivery channel. Don’t be hesitant to iterate, pivot or rethink. You’re not betting your business on these, at least to start with, so failures don’t have a large downside. Look for where you are getting initial success, try to understand the success drivers, and replicate those as you add to the volume and complexity of your bots.

Keep in mind that the bot-driven era of computing will be like a marathon, or at least a 10K run, not a sprint. It’s not too soon to start venturing with bots. Along the way you’ll get a better sense for how they can benefit your customers and your business. And you’ll help determine the shape they take as they come into the mainstream as the next wave of computing.