Chatbots Will Be Your New Best Friend

Chatbots came on the scene in 2011 as business intelligence, artificial intelligence and messaging platforms combined into new forms of responsive technology.  New ways were needed to support companies interacting with buyers and provide customer support that aligned and could evolve with changing communication habits.

What is a chatbot?  A messaging application, sometimes referred to as a conversational interface, designed to simplify complex predefined task(s). The ‘chatbot’ label covers a number of categories including stand-alone applications, AI tools, bot developer frameworks and messaging, bot discovery, connectors/shared services, and analytics.  VentureBeat recently released a bot landscape which undoubtedly will rapidly expand in the near future.

Today, chatbots are seen as easy and fun ways to help customers achieve an outcome. You’ll encounter them on web sites, social media and even on your smartphone. Say hello to Siri, Allo and Alexa, to name a few.

To further adoption developers are making chatbots more human-like with personalities, capable of recognizing speech patterns and interpreting non-verbal cues to make interactions even smoother. The excitement is not in what they are capable of doing today but in their future trajectory.  As cited in The Chatbot Magazine, “Messaging apps are the platforms of the future and bots will be how their users access all sorts of services” shares Peter Rojas, Entrepreneur in Residence at Betaworks. 

Verizon Ventures is an active investor in the chatbot market.  According to Christie Pitts, Manager – Ventures Development, Verizon Ventures, “Chatbots represent a new trend in how people access information, make decisions, and communicate. We think that chatbots are the beginning of a new form of digital access, which centers on messaging. Messaging has become a huge component of how we interact with our devices, and how we stay connected with the people, businesses and the day-to-day activities of life. Chatbots bring commerce into this part of our lives, and will open up new opportunities.”

When asked why chatbots are strategic to Verizon, Pitts replied, “At heart, Verizon is a technology company and as such is constantly at the forefront of understanding and delivering on new market opportunities, and one of our top priorities is simplifying communication with our customers.”

They have invested in companies like Spark Cognition, Adtheorent, Q Sensei, and MapD. Verizon sees AI as an enabling technology layer that can lead to huge gains. Companies working with AI technologies will create valuable solutions that augment the way people communicate, with each other and machines.

Chatbot technology is part of Relay Network’s customer experience communication solution. Their approach is to first determine the specific use cases that could benefit from this technology.  Matt Gillin, CEO of Relay Network, believes “that a customer relationship and communication pattern needs to exist first before you can employ technologies, like bots, to facilitate the relationship further.”

When asked about guidelines when employing chatbots, Gillin’s recommendation is bots are best “for scripted transactions or tasks that don’t require a lot back and forth.” Chatbots are most effective in situations where a customer is trying to resolve routine issues, complete specific tasks like placing an order, or guiding a user through a multi-step process. The benefit is the ability to “close the loop with the customer along a process, efficiently and in a delightful way,” shares Gillin. The ROI is in cost reduction, efficiency and improved customer satisfaction.

Chatbots also play a role in marketing. By tagging specific content to certain chatbot words or phrases, content could be delivered in any number of pre-defined conversations. With deep understanding of the customer journey and emotions, through the eyes of the buyer, content and bot conversations can be successfully mapped and programmed.

Verizon is excited about chatbots and the advances that are happening in the field of artificial intelligence. Over time, great leaps in technology have provided huge benefits to our lives.

It’s easy, however, to get carried away with the allure of artificial intelligence and human-machine relationships. “Sometimes advancement comes with trepidation,” says Pitts. “Outcomes can be predictable and beneficial, or at times unpredictable and present new challenges. In the long view it is clear that technology improvements are a net benefit to society.”

Yet, lurking in the background is the concern about unintended consequences. We become enamored with technology and its potential to do good.  We don’t think about the possibility of a dark side; how the technology’s original intent can be perverted to do harm.  A few examples are social media cyberbullying and sexting.  It’s a lesson we seem unable to learn.

Dr. Liraz Margalit, Director of Behavioral Analytics for Clicktale, an enterprise-class experience management platform, blames our tendency to see the world through rose-colored glasses as a “lack of psychology research in the early stages of technology development. As a result we don’t plan for all the issues that will arise.”

For some the unintended consequences are already here.

Our willful blindness about the dark side of technology has some expressing concern.  Futurists like James Canton to technology giants Alphabet, Amazon, IBM, Facebook and Microsoft are calling for an AI framework that takes into account social and economic policies.

Dr. Margalit states that “interacting with chatbots creates in our brains a new model which results in a new state of mind.”  We may intellectually know we’re interacting with a computer but our brain perceives it as companionship.

The more human-like chatbots become, the more our brains gravitate to a companionship model.  And that is where the slippery slope begins.  As users increasingly interact with chatbots, they subconsciously perceive that bot as a friend – one that makes them feel good because the user unconsciously has control over the relationship.  No need for you to be nice and pleasant, the chatbot is selfless, always ready and available to serve you and in a good mood.  Dr. Margalit calls it “designing technology for companionship without demand for friendship.”  She believes incorporating humanoid social robots into our lives “invariably alters the dynamics of human relationships and gives rise to a society that isn’t completely real.”

So what’s the wrong with that? Unfortunately, some users cannot tell the difference between a chatbot and human chat. Take a look at what happening in China with Tay and Xiaolce.

This is known as the ‘Eliza Effect’ where people think they are communicating with a real person when in actuality it is a piece of software. When these same users then interact with fellow human-beings, things go awry.  They bring into the real-world human-to-human interaction a mental model partially based on how they felt and behaved while interacting with a bot.

Dr. Margalit cites several studies done with children that are heavy smartphone users. These studies found a correlation to rudeness, impatience, imitation of video hero behavior, and disconnected attitude toward the real world.  Asymmetrical digital interactions are easier and don’t require effort on our part to really understand the perspective of other people, especially if their views are different.

Gillin isn’t too worried about the slippery slope, “the focus of an organization on improving a brand’s business will keep it from running into the AI moral dilemma”.  Pitts and her Verizon team believe that “elements of AI like machine learning, natural language processing, and neural networks are poised to power the next wave of a digital revolution. Smartphones and ubiquitous access to high quality wireless networks have improved our lives in countless ways. AI-powered solutions will very likely further this transformation.”

Interestingly, both Gillin and Margalit believe that chatbots should be visually tagged with a universally accepted icon so the unaware among us are always reminded we’re interacting with software, not our best friend. “Bots are changing rapidly as technology improves,” shares Pitts. “A bot that provides information today could provide contextual recommendations tomorrow. We are looking forward to watching these new technologies and integrating them when it will benefit our customers.”

Chatbots are not likely to take over and drive all forms of customer communication. The technology isn’t that advanced and remains dependent on human design and oversight. The importance of this technology is its role as a stepping stone to the new world of IoT (Internet of Things) wherein traditional roles of sales, marketing and customer service will be completed transformed.

We can either focus on redefining, in advance, what tomorrow’s organization, culture, and customer relationships should look like and guide technology development to further that transformation. Or we can be smitten with creating humanoid social bots that mimic us because in today’s increasingly isolating society we all need a new best friend.

Originally posted in Forbes

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