During Microsoft’s Build Conference earlier this year, CEO Satya Nadella delivered the three-hour keynote address, in which he highlighted his belief that the future of technology lies in human language. In this new wave of technology, conversation is the new interface, and “bots are the new apps.”
While not as flashy as virtual reality nor as immediately practical as 3D printing, chatbots are nevertheless gaining major traction this year, with support coming from across the entire tech industry. The big tech enterprises are all entering the chatbot space, and many startups are too.
The question is, why is so much attention being given to chatbots recently, and should your business be paying attention too?
Out with the apps, in with the chatbots
The reason for the attention is simple: The power of the natural language processor, software that processes and parses human language, creating a simple and universal means of interacting with technology.
Natural language processors have been making headlines since Apple’s Siri debuted with a splash in 2011. In essence, digital assistants like Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Now are trying to accomplish the same thing as chatbots: Understanding human language to enhance the user’s experience.
Digital assistants recognize and parse voice commands, while chatbots respond to text.
Comprehending human conversation is no easy task for a computer, and companies all over the world have sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into the effort. The potential long-term gains, however, are massive, so tech enterprises are entering the race, hoping they can crack the code to human language before anyone else, using a combination of machine learning and pattern recognition.
Build a customer service that never sleeps
While the power of voice-controlled digital assistants is undeniably impressive, in the past two years, businesses have been increasingly exploring the capabilities of chatbots, the software that can understand and reply to typed commands and questions. Each can accomplish similar goals, but chatbots are a simpler technology that can more easily target a specific subject. If your business regularly deals with customers, they likely have consistent issues or questions, and building a chatbot is an easy way to streamline that interaction by providing information to a customer faster and more efficiently than a customer service representative.
Tech enterprises first began releasing chatbots to the public market when Microsoft’s Xiaoice went live in 2014.
Xiaoice was quickly followed by Facebook’s M, which debuted to private beta in August 2015, and now Google plans to release its own chatbot. However, the fact that multi-billion dollar companies are building chatbots doesn’t mean that any business can, so why are startups building chatbots too? In part, tech enterprises are helping smaller businesses develop chatbots because not only do enterprises want to build the smartest chatbot, but they also want to control a platform for all other chatbots too.
To give this aid context, this past April, Facebook announced that it was opening up its Messenger platform to third party chatbots. Facebook Messenger currently has more than 900 million monthly users, and now Facebook is making the push to create a Messenger that is not only a platform for conversation but also a marketplace where business transactions can take place.
For companies looking to connect with Facebook’s 1.65 billion users, bringing your business directly to the source isn’t a bad call. Over 45,000 developers are currently using Wit.ai, Facebook’s chatbot building tool, to create intelligent chatbots for Facebook Messenger, and Wit.ai simplifies developers’ workflow by providing structure and an intent processor to augment the bot’s understanding of human language.
Facebook isn’t the only enterprise encouraging developers to build chatbots for themselves and smaller companies. In March, Microsoft announced Bot Framework, a tool to aid developers build chatbots of their own.
Unlike Facebook’s Wit.ai, the Bot Framework has no strings attached and doesn’t require integration with any particular platform. The tool is currently in preview, but others are already out, such as Howdy’s Botkit, which is on open source platform Github and is already helping developers build bots to integrate with Slack, Facebook Messenger, and other messaging platforms.
Never miss a meeting again
So the tools to build chatbots are at a developer’s fingertips, but why build one? If you don’t sell a product or run a chat messenger, then what benefits can a chatbot bring you?
It turns out that perhaps the most important practical use of the chatbot is for customer service. Research firm Gartner predicts that only one-third of customer service interactions will require human interaction by 2017. That means the rest will be handled by automated software like chatbots. Rather than contacting a customer service representative to answer a question, customers could instead ask a chatbot like Amelia and have an answer almost immediately.
In a business world in which customer service is the most important factor to success, this kind of bot could make a huge difference in beating out the competition.
Even if your business isn’t dependent upon customer service, chatbots can still be useful for any number of reasons. Just consider X.ai, an administrative bot that schedules meetings for you. While it may seem like a mundane task that doesn’t need its own bot, this kind of practicality is incredibly useful and is a big time saver.
There are an incredible number of applications for chatbots, and many of them have yet to be realized. By 2025, 12.7 million jobs will be created to build and train robots and automated software.
Even if chatbots seem like a niche right now, market predictions point to chatbots changing how people interact with businesses and with the internet on a large scale. Should you already develop your own chatbot in 22017? Maybe not, but in the next year or two, you absolutely should be.
This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.