Thanks to developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies, chatbots are changing the way businesses communicate with the world -- including their customers.
Chatbots, computer programs that simulate human conversations through AI, in most cases communicate with real people -- but applications are being developed that enable them to communicate with each other.
The use of chatbots is on the rise, and they are becoming more sophisticated, said Jen Looper, a web and mobile developer, a developer advocate for Progress, and founder of Ladeez First Media, a developer of mobile apps specializing in education and fitness.
They have enjoyed wide adoption in already-popular applications such as Skype, Facebook Messenger, Kik, and Slack, Looper said, and Microsoft and Google have jumped into the development of conversational interfaces in a big way.
For example, Google has acquired API.ai, a platform for building bots, and Microsoft is developing its own Bot Framework, Looper noted. "Facebook's new ability to add payments via Messenger further ups the ante," she said. "Facebook is a particularly important name in the chatbot industry, as Messenger is very popular and it owns WhatsApp. As long as big companies with popular platforms such as these see value in bots, they will continue to grow."
Once a platform or app has started to be widely adopted, it provides a great opportunity for a chatbot integration, Looper said. "Popular apps such as WhatsApp are an ideal arena for the development of chatbots, as they have a vast array of users who use only a minimal number of apps during the day," she said.
If a chatbot can be integrated into those apps in wide use, Looper said, then their integrations allow those users to engage third-party APIs without obliging the user to open a second app. "The rise of chatbots has thus enabled a large segment of [people] to make use of services like Uber and Shopify from within their preferred app ecosystem, never exiting to use a third-party app," she said.
Despite advances in the technology, there are still hurdles to overcome. "Interacting with a chatbot can seem strange and uncanny," Looper said. "As long as artificial intelligence and machine learning continue to evolve as disciplines, so will chatbots."
Developers need tools to efficiently develop bots. "The user interface is minimal, but the actual design of the bot's functionality can be quite complex and difficult to get right," Looper said. "After all, you are trying to create an artificial human interaction that seems natural."
There's clearly potential for businesses to use chatbots for a variety of applications. For instance, a company could use chatbots to act as virtual assistants for visually-impaired people. "They could also be used to make a team more productive," Looper said, by reminding people of meetings, to dispense awards and accolades, and to organize workflows.
"Now that chatbots can handle payments in some apps, e-commerce integrations will surely follow," Looper said. "It's a great time to start developing chatbots."