white robot

Bots: What are they and what do they do?

Helpful chatbots are all the rage, but should we be excited or do they just lead to more online frustration?

Always eager to embrace growing trends and technological advances, Facebook announced earlier this year that Bots could be coming to their messenger service in the not too distant future.

The social media giant’s Vice President of messaging products, David Marcus, has already announced that 11,000 chatbots have been added to its planned Facebook M service while also claiming that the bots will also be able to send videos, audio clips, GIFs and other files.

And with Microsoft seemingly just as interested, after unveiling its Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered “Tay” on Twitter for a playful chat with its audience, it seems there is no holding back the Bot revolution.

So what are Bots, what can they do and where might we see them being used in the future?

What is a Bot?

A Bot can be several different things depending on who you ask. A gamer might tell you that they are AI characters in a game, while botnets are groups of hijacked computers which cyber criminals use for various tasks like sending out millions of spam emails.

But the bots you are likely to see being used more frequently by the likes of Facebook and Amazon are essentially virtual assistants. Think Siri and Cortana but just without the annoying voice, communicating and helping you via text rather than speech.

Combining pre-set scripts and deep learning neural networks, bots can predict an accurate response to a posed question or statement in a way that skips phases of conversation to mimic regular chat.

How do they work?

Think of bots like those virtual, online assistants that banks and insurance firms like to use, only more helpful.  You can chat to them – by typing – and they will respond with sensible, intelligent answers, well that’s the plan anyway.

The information they give is based on your previous search history, so, in theory, they should know exactly what you like doing and what it is you are looking for. Think of them like your very own personal assistant, doing everything from handling your Amazon returns to booking flights and ordering your lunch.

At Facebook’s F8 developer’s conference Dave Marcus chose the CNN bot to demonstrate just what the new software can do; explaining how you can tell the Bot what you’re interested in so it can tailor topics that are sent to you, and scroll through a carousel of different news stories. You can also ask it for a specific summary of a story.

He also mentioned the shopping concierge Bot built by e-commerce site Spring. The Bot asks you what you’re looking to buy – you can just text it if you want to, or click on the buttons – say you pick shoes, you can input price, and you get a range of curated products that you can scroll horizontally.

When Might I see them?

You probably encounter Bots in your everyday life but just don’t know it. In terms of Facebook, their Facebook M software is currently being trialed by a small group of people in California, but will no doubt soon be appearing in everyone’s Messenger app soon, and expect them to be a huge part of Microsoft’s future plans too.

Answering questions in the same way that Siri does, it should be able to find a suitable birthday present for your brother, book a table at a restaurant, or order a takeaway pizza.

So you see, the technology could be embraced by a whole host of online providers and it might be easier to say where you won’t be seeing Bots.

What are the drawbacks?

As with anything in life, there is usually a catch and creating virtual operatives that are able to think and act on our behalf is no exception.

Not only might they pose a threat to people’s jobs, but prominent scientists like Stephen Hawking, and engineers such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates, have been vocally against the further development of A.I. warning that bots are more intelligent and adaptable than humans – therefore more prone to manipulation.

Hackers obviously present a constant threat, as regular digital break-ins are now common place and with Bots, those threats may be a bigger risk than just to financial or account information.

What happens next?

Bots are far from being just something dreamt-up by engineers who have too much time on their hands. They are in use, right here, right now and there’s not much we can do to stop the progression.

Artificial intelligence as a whole is developing at an incredible rate and while they might not be the type of thing we see in the movies, they are already empowering us and changing the way we interact with companies, or more likely, how companies interact with us.

So thanks to an ubiquity of messaging apps, our overarching desire for more efficient online services and industry figureheads heralding Bots as the “next big thing”, it is hard to imagine they will be disappearing any time soon.


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