As of yesterday, Internet messaging crossed over into a new phase, a phase in which bots will be as much a part of the conversation as real people. As Facebook says in its blog, “bots can provide anything from automated subscription content like weather and traffic updates, to customized communications like receipts, shipping notifications, and live automated messages all by interacting directly with the people who want to get them.”
But what is a bot?
Bots are not really new and have been around the internet for many years. If many years ago someone kicked you out of a chatroom for being abusive, or if you got followed by a 100 Apple related Twitter handles because you were tweeting extensively on the company, it was all the handiwork of bots. All bots are programmed to act or react in a certain way.
How are Facebook bots different?
They are not different, but they are certainly more intelligent. Also, these will not just be Facebook’s as Bots for Messenger have been opened out for “anyone who’s trying to reach people on mobile – no matter how big or small your company or idea is, or what problem you’re trying to solve”.
This means there will be lots of companies and people creating bots for Messenger. A few are already live, like the one from CNN which sends out news as a private, personalised message, or the one planned by Burger King to allow customers to order food through messenger.
How is this significant?
For long, a lot of companies have been talking about how the messenger is becoming the platform of late. Just see your own behaviour, messengers — maybe just one, or many — are among the most used apps on your phone.
If you are a regular user of Facebook Messenger, you will be able to do everything from getting an appointment with your doctor to hailing a cab. And you will be able to create bots that send out regular updates from your side, maybe about where you are.
Having had a look in at some of these technologies, companies are thinking of creating bots that could, for instance, send regular updates to a doctor about the vitals of a patient who is critical.
There are already bots doing this in case of powerlines or servers located in remote parts of the world. The opportunity for a company like Facebook would be in monetising this space, maybe at the cost of apps. For instance, while you can use the Burger King apps to order food, you can even ask the bot about the menu and even get customised deals. Facebook could potentially get a cut in all these transactions.
What is the risk?
Bots are bots, they are not humans. So there will be a lot of thinking before anything critical is entrusted to them. You can afford to not have your burger delivered, but you cannot risk having your doctor not know that your sugar level is going down drastically. Blaming a bot at the end of the day would be silly.
In fact, Microsoft learnt this the hard way with its bot, Tay. Tay was supposed to be an artificially intelligent chatbot to interact with young Americans and was modelled on “relevant public data”. But Tay proved to be a bot of a disaster, a bit too much like the public it was representing: offensive, sexist and racist. Yes, the risk is that, like humans, they could turn rogue.