Bots 101: A Crash Course

 

I’m the in-house copywriter here at Myplanet,which means my technical know-how isn’t quite at — or even near — the level of my coworkers

 

It can be a bit intimidating working here, because I’m surrounded by some of the sharpest and most technically up-to-date minds working in the digital space. But it’s also invigorating and inspiring. I’m constantly learning about the latest and greatest in tech advancements and I have a window to the future of digital all day, every day.


Sometimes I feel barely one step above an infant in my technical comprehension and skills, but in reality I’m actually quite tech literate (a fact I regularly re-discover when I speak with any non-tech industry individuals).


In fact, it turns out I have kind of a unique vantage point: I know a lot more than the average non-tech person, so I can speak to digital trends and on technical topics that grasp at fairly complex ideas. But I’m also constantly learning something new, and because of the incredible people I work with, I’m learning it at a fairly high level.


So while my coworkers make amazing things on/for/using the internet, I am able to write about it all. It’s a pretty great set-up, all things considered.


Which is why today, I’ve set out to write about bots—in particular, to discuss the increasing prominence of chatbots and figure out if/how we at Myplanet can harness them effectively as we craft meaningful experiences for our enterprise clients and their customers. I want to trace their path from nascent, automated task-follower to current media-darling-du-jour to wherever they may end up.


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As is often the case when I’m exploring a new topic, I turned to the words first. Step one: go to my trusty ol’ dictionary for a definition of “bot” (except, because I’m a millennial, I turned to Wikipedia instead). Per Wikipedia:


An Internet bot, also known as web robot, WWW robot or simply bot, is a software application that runs automated tasks (scripts) over the Internet. Typically, bots perform tasks that are both simple and structurally repetitive, at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human alone.


A good start, but that little tidbit about “WWW robots” isn’t quite informative enough for me to convincingly discuss the importance of bots in the world or, more specifically, the rise of chatbots—a niche a writer such as myself finds especially fascinating—and their potential for greatness in the workplace. And given that bots are suddenly the “it” topic in tech circles, I’m going to need a little more to go on if I’m going to break down their path clearly.


So, from the beginning then. What is a bot and why should we all care?

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Bots, Their “Existence” and You

 

As so often happens with trends in tech, bots are suddenly everywhere. Facebook recently announced the launch of their Messenger Platform, essentially as a means of enabling bot integrations; the juggernaut chat platform Slack offers a comprehensive guide to bot enablement for their users and has its very own friendly and instructive onboarding bot, the creatively named “Slackbot”; and Telegram just announced $1,000,000 available for devs who build them some bots.


A million dollars! I am not overstating things when I say bots are the thing. If I hadn’t been sold on the topic before, the sheer volume of chatter would have been reason enough to engage. (Plus, chatbots have that nice, writerly appeal of being somewhat conversant. How could I resist?)

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Author tries to grapple with modern technology, fails.


As for what bots actually are, Wikipedia isn’t wrong (except about people calling them “WWW robots”, there’s simply no way that’s right). Bots are, in fact, software applications that run automated tasks. And you have definitely interacted with them before, whether you realize it or not.


As a savvy internet person, you’ve undoubtedly received thousands—possibly millions—of spam messages. Spam email is perhaps the most notorious instance of bot-dom, with messages generated and spat into your inbox by bots at alarming rates. But your email service’s ability to filter and automatically junk those garbage missives? Also the work of a bot! It’s like a virtual bot vs. bot letter throwing contest (which is now a thing I will spend the rest of the afternoon imagining).


Nearly all the spam content you receive in the form of junk texts or tweets—or really any other communication that seems auto-generated, oddly poetic, and somewhat grammatically irreverant—is a bot at work. But it isn’t just communiqués from the bowels of the internet that bots are responsible for.


Quite aside from simplifying tasks for developers, which they certainly do, bots actually do some great and kind of incredible things for us lay-folk. There are bots that can monitor and alert people to natural disasters and epidemics, and bots that can inspire awe. Bots have been known to monitor nefarious government activities and report on them, they write poetry and (uncomfortably) news articles. They teach, alert, sell and even entertain—albeit often unintentionally—like my favourite Twitterbot, @Horse_ebooks:

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I will demand furniture, @Horse_ebooks. I will!


So yes. You have seen, benefited from, been disrupted by, and likely reached peak irritation with bots. They’re in a lot of places already, and they’re poised to be everywhere soon. But if they’re so omnipresent already, why are we suddenly hearing about them like a new, emerging tech trend?


The answer, of course, is interactivity.


Bot, Meet User. User, Meet Bot.


Bots can definitely do a lot of great things, but until recently it was a fairly one-sided conversation. They talked at us instead of with us. We told them to run scripts for us and they did. “Accomplish this task!” our developers would bellow at the wee bots and off they would scurry to do just that. But now? Now they’re evolving, and with it our understanding of them and they ways they can help us (or harm us) must too.

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Author tries again to grapple with technology, gets unexpectedly brusque psyche-searching prompt instead.


One of the earliest bots to stake a claim on the chatbot turf was ELIZA, a philosopher/game/armchair psychotherapist bot. Her arrival set a demarcation line of sorts, between bots that do what we want and nothing more, and bots that are able to—kind of—do what they want. If bots developed along human life stages, ELIZA was the pre-teen years, testing the waters of independent thought without going too far.


The pre-teen years only last so long, however, and we are now fully into the teen years. It’s an era marked by the arrival of large, well-known consumer bots that interact with users. No longer hidden in the background, we now engage with our bots. Chatbots have arrived and they are talking to us, helping us, advising us and giving us (sometimes questionable) directions to the mall. But chatbots go beyond Apple’s very popular Siri.


In an article for Business Insider, Biz Carson asserts that “Chatbots are the future, whether we're ready for them or not,” going on to cite Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who describes chatbots as “inevitable”.


But Microsoft isn’t the only one betting big on the inevitability of bots— major players like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Slack are pushing for more robust, “smarter” chatbots, spurred on by the potential to simplify the steps and processes you follow every day and the opportunity to gain the upper-hand in a market space that is only just emerging now.


“Think of it as a replacement for all of the apps you have downloaded. Instead of opening the weather app to see the temperature, you can ask a bot and it will tell you the weather instead. Eventually, a single chatbot could become your own personal assistant.” - Biz Carson


But bots aren’t a be-all, end-all solution. As Amir Shevat, Head of Developer Relations at Slack notes, “Bots are only as wonderful as the service they expose. As with all interfaces ,  exposing your service with a bot will not make it awesome unless it is already awesome.” They can be useful, wonderful things. But just because it can be built, doesn’t mean it should be.


Added to this is that amid all the excitement there is growing and valid concern. One can find—without much effort, it should be noted—plenty of examples of bots gone wild. As their ability to interpret grows, we lose the control we had over the bots when all they did was follow scripts. If we can train them to be helpful and fun, we can train them to be cruel and malicious just as easily— even when we don’t mean to.


To complicate things further, the considerations of where responsibility lies when things do go awry is complicated at best. “[W]e don’t blame the bot for its poor socialization. We blame the human behind it,” says the team behind a recent “botifesto” put out by Data & Society.


When I asked Ates Goral, a Senior Developer at Myplanet, about this he cited security concerns as one of the major issues with the emergence of bots. “This is a new medium (or an old one regurgitated). We know how to make the web secure, but as more people employ this realm, we’ll start to see more security issues. More holes, more data leaks, more exploits.”


Of course it’s impossible to anticipate every eventuality. And with chatbots and the increasing smarts of our AI derived entities, the control we have over those outcomes diminishes (look no further than Microsoft’s Tay, the most recent and probably notorious example of this, for proof). But in spite of these concerns, Ates, like the folks on the Data & Society team, doesn’t see the bot tide slowing. The bots are coming whether we like it or not, the best we can do is take the time to think through edge cases and conduct rigorous testing as we work to prevent issues before they arise.



Take Your Bot to Work Day


So far we’ve learned what bots are (generally speaking, at least), what they do (again, generally speaking), and who is investing in them (basically everybody). Now it’s time to dig into the chatbots to get a sense of just how they can contribute to the workplace revolution.

“The first thing we need to ask ourselves is, what product/service do I want to build? Then we need to ask, what is the optimal way to expose this service? It might sound silly, but many product managers and developers are so excited about bots that they try to ‘fit a square bot into a round hole.’” - Amir Shevat


One already popular use for chatbots is the assistant / customer service bot. These bots assist new users as they onboard to a new platform and can provide nearly instant customer service when issues arise. But chatbots can go beyond these specific use cases.


I asked Ates to give me some of his insights on where the bot revolution may take us. He was working on bots in the late 90s (before they were cool) and sees the current upswing in popularity as connected to the advances being made in deep learning.


As the machines get better at interpreting, he noted, the opportunity for things like contextual customer service grows. “For example, if I log into Air Canada’s website and there’s a chatbot there, it should recognize me from my username, know I have a flight booked, and proactively offer information or predict an issue if there is one.” Basically, imagine a future full of platforms that have context on who you are and know everything about you.


Taken one step further, this experience can be made “omnichannel”— an experience where you could get access across unified platforms and services. With the increased capabilities of bots, this kind of experience could dramatically alter the way we interact with everything from our cable provider to our medical services.


Think of the government services and healthcare systems we interact with regularly. Our most fundamental—and frustrating—experiences are inevitably hobbled by tedious bureaucracy. The deployment of bots, able to provide the contextual customer service Ates noted, could relieve much of that aggravation.


By automating processes or harnessing the bots’ power to perform certain mundane tasks quickly and easily, we could see a reduction in wait-times, bureaucratic frustrations and costs to provide services by having just a few carefully deployed bots.


As we start to see more and more IoT devices, having that seamless, contextually nuanced experience will become customer expectation. If I access my cable account from one device and need to speak to a representative about a concern, I shouldn’t have to enter, re-enter and then confirm once again my own identity as I get shuttled from one framework to another and from machine to representative. Bots can make that experience seamless for users, sharing required information as users switch contexts, without forcing extra effort from them.


Companies that are able to provide experiences to their customers that exceed expectations will be companies that have figured out how to harness the best of bot technology.



How I Learned to Love the Bot


I’ve got a solid understanding about a lot of pretty complicated tech matters. By the grace of my surroundings and my colleagues, I’m always going to be slightly ahead of the curve. But I’m not the norm. The world moves too fast for most people to keep on top of emerging tech trends and the reality is, they’re never going to totally “get” whatever the current and best thing is. Fortunately, they don’t need to.


They don’t need to fully comprehend the technical aspects of how a bot works to appreciate the ways it can make life better. And this matters, because the truth is, they’re the people you’re designing and building your web portals and employee tools for.


Most people will probably never fully engage with what’s available to them from a tech perspective. But having a friendly bot ease them into their new office software with a simple onboarding session? They’ll get a lot more out of the program you built after that, I guarantee it. And navigating a complex bureaucratic structure? People will cry every time. But a bot that automates certain components of that process, streamlining it and getting them to their desired outcome faster and with less frustration? Those tears will be tears of joy, my friends.


Predicting where they will go and what they will do is basically impossible, because predicting the future is dark magic that only true seers should even attempt, and technology is the most mysterious of all future things. But the growing presence of—as well as our increasing reliance on—bots is almost assured. So get on board and get creative. They can be anything we make them. Well, anything you make them. I’m here to write about it.

Written by

Leigh Bryant

Leigh Bryant

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