The bots are upon us - or at least that is what tech and media trend-setters want you to believe. 
Anywhere you look, the news is awash in buzz around chatbots, conversational interfaces and AI. Hardly a day passes without more companies and brands hopping on the bot bandwagon, following the footsteps of tech pioneers such as Apple, WeChat, Google, Microsoft, Facebook - you name it. The best interface is no interface, we are told, because AI is finally here with (ro)bots coming for our screens, our cars and our jobs. Deep Learning is all the rage (with most mere mortals not exactly knowing what it is, except it literally sounds deep and is apparently revolutionary) and the [AI] singularity is near! At the same time, the skeptics are quick to point out that chatbots are in fact nothing new (remember IRC?), and so far, most of Facebook Messenger's emerging 3rd party bots, umm... suck - in the parlance of our times.

How do you make sense of it all and separate the signal from the noise? How can you tell if you actually, genuinely need a bot? How conversational does it actually have to be? Does everybody now need an in-house NLP/Machine Learning expert, or can we just use open source/3rd party platforms to get the job done?

Much of the confusion stems from over-using the term "bot".  So, for the sake of clarity, let us start by drawing a distinction between the different bot categories: 

  1. App-bots - that sounds like an apt name for those micro-apps dressed up as messenger contacts, typically addressing long-tail use cases such as ordering pizza or checking flight schedules - needs that could as well be met with a native app (assuming you managed to get people to actually download one). More importantly, these use cases are not necessarily conversational by nature. In fact, when some app-bots rely on verbal commands too much, they begin to feel like glorified command-line interfaces. As a result, they are often better off with standard visual UI element such as menus or buttons. Unless, of course, they rely on voice for input - then, see (4). Bottom line, app-bots are more apps than bots, in the traditional sense of the word. 
  2. Content bots - such as Forbes or CNN bot, for instance. These guys are really content distribution channels, they are all about push and are hardly ever conversational, but can sometimes support basic keyword search. In theory, a dialogue-driven newsbot could make an interesting product, but nobody has really nailed it yet. 
  3. Chatbots - i.e., genuine "chat bots", where the chat medium is in fact key to the experience, namely, where verbal communication actually helps get the job done. One popular use case is of course, customer service, which may very well be the killer app for chatbots. But, beyond run-of-the-mill customer support, we are seeing a surge in conversational concierge bots: from transaction-oriented services such as travel agents, to more casual assistance such as movie recommendations, to virtual friends, etc. Notice that, in principle, chatbots can be powered by either human agents or machines (or both).  Naturally, the trend is to eliminate or at least minimize the reliance on humans - to make the service both more responsive and more scalable. But, even when striving for a fully automated chatbot, one should not completely rule out a hybrid human-in-the-loop approach.
  4. Voice assistants - such as Amazon Echo, our Robin app, etc. - are essentially chatbots that use voice as the main/only communication channel, becoming very handy e.g., in the living room, in the car and other hands-free scenarios. Due to their reliance on voice, these bots have the highest conversational fluency bar of all other categories. As a result, they are the hardest to build, but can be genuinely useful when typing is not a good option - as evidenced by Amazon Echo's popularity. When the experience works, it does feel like the holy grail! 

Which of these categories fits your agenda? The question to ask yourself is, why do I need a bot? Is my use case inherently conversational or am I simply looking for massive new distribution channels? If it's mainly the distribution you are after and your use case does is not 'screaming' for a chat interface, congratulations! What you need is an app-bot and you are probably better off keeping it simple with good old buttons! 

If, however, your use case is fundamentally conversational, i.e., you can make your customers' life easier by letting them communicate in natural language, then chat (or voice) is likely the right interface and what you need is a bona fide chatbot!

This is all great, you may say: suppose I've done my homework and decided that do actually want to "go conversational". I need a chatbot - what are my options?

Excellent question - and a topic for our next post in this series! Spoiler alert: one
of the options is leveraging our Robin.AI chatbot platform, already used by the likes of
NTT Docomo, Pioneer, Volkswagen/Audi, TCL, etc. Robin.AI models are being trained on real user conversations: over 100 million of them, and counting... But more about that in the next post. 
Don't want to wait? Give us a shout today!