The Rise of Chatbots

By Ainan Ameen

Just 8 short years ago, Apple revolutionized the way we build and interact with technology with the birth of the App Store. The general concept of an app store existed long before that, yet within 7 years, over 100 billion apps were downloaded from Apple’s App Store, and the phrase “there’s an app for that” became common in everyday conversation. In just a few hours, Facebook will be announcing what is speculated to be a Live Chat API alongside an online “Bot Store” for chat bots at their annual developer conference, F8. This has the potential to catapult the development of chat bots in a way that’s parallel to what the App Store did for apps.

Chatbots Explained

Simply put, a chatbot is a software program that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to communicate with humans in the form of a textual conversation. This notion of “conversation as a platform” has been around for a while, but now that AI has advanced, we could be at the tipping point of a chatbot revolution. The standard interaction would be to ask the chat bot a question, and using natural language processing, it would respond with an intelligent, human-like answer. For example, imagine instead of opening your weather app to check the temperature that day, you could simply ask a chatbot.

The Current State of Chatbots

Major tech companies such as Facebook and Microsoft are betting big on chatbots. We’ve seen Slack introduce bot users to their platform, which has helped them cement their position as the de facto standard for team communication within the tech industry. Luka, a chat-based Yelp competitor recently raised over $4 million in their Series A. Furthermore, Kik, a popular messenger app, beat Facebook to the punch by creating a Bot Shop for their platform just last week. Of course, there’s still a long way to go. Take Microsoft’s “Tay” for instance, a Twitter chatbot that was intended to resemble a 14-year old girl. Tay went rogue, spewing racist and homophobic remarks, forcing Twitter to remove the bot. The potential of chatbots is far reaching and as we see AI mature, chatbot use cases will grow exponentially.

How Chatbots Will Disrupt the App Ecosystem

Presently, we’re equipped with a plethora of apps to suit every task at hand. Let’s take the weather example discussed above. Say I wanted to go snowboarding over the weekend. I think we can agree that it’s not too difficult to open up your weather app to check the weather for that day. But being an avid snowboarder, I’m not only concerned about the weather, but how the snow conditions will be. How is the base? How many trails are open? Has it snowed in the past few days? What about next weekend? Who out of my friends are available? You can start to see how if I were to sift through all this information manually, it could take some time and I’d likely be using multiple apps.

With the growth of chatbots, we’ll have vast amounts of information waiting at the end of a question mark. The paradigm of a textual conversation is one that we’re naturally accustomed to and our interactions with technology will increasingly resemble natural human communication. Apps will no longer need all the standard components of a user interface (UI) that we see today. Instead, chatbots will be able to harness the power of AI to usher in a new wave of UI, resulting in a paradigm shift in how we use apps. This is how chatbots will disrupt the app ecosystem.

Today will determine how strong of a push Facebook will make to ensure Messenger is the conversation platform of the future, and there’s potential for it to disrupt the tech industry in ways that Apple did with the App Store. And just maybe, in the not too distant future, it won’t be uncommon to hear the phrase: “there’s a bot for that”.

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