Bring on the bots: Will bots rebuild business?

Every year delivers a different message from the technology community. This time round? Well, it seems to be saying 'bring on the bots'. This is not a cry for some kind of android Jeeves serving you cocktails, instead it is a reference to the chatbots announced by Facebook at its F8 development conference last month.

At first glance, it hardly seemed like news at all. Haven’t chatbots been around for ages on Internet sites, asking us if we need help? Well, this is a new kind of technology. David Marcus, who heads Facebook Messenger, called the bots, who can help you shop, solve problems and even act as a friend, 'the start of a new era'. Similarly, Microsoft is predicting a huge future for artificial intelligence (AI) bots and is investing swathes of research in the area.

Such big statements from these organisations need to be taken with a pinch of salt. While it is clear of the potential with technology like virtual reality (VR), because individuals are actually experiencing its impact as we speak, what bots are capable of appears less clear. Chatbots, ironically, have a communication problem.

A lot of the conversation is around consumer interactions. But as with many technologies, the focus should be on how it will transform the enterprise. In this piece, I explore whether the technology can change customer interaction, business, and even the entire way we work.

Coming of age

First up, we need to define exactly what we mean by the term 'chatbot'. When we discuss the technology, we have to remember we are talking about more than gimmicks or spamming trolls — they are incredibly technical creations that blur the line between programme and AI. Using technology such as machine learning, the less catchy, but more accurate, name for chatbots is conversational user interfaces. And indeed, conversational user interfaces have come a long way over the years. Just think about MS Office’s chirpy Clippy — we have all had an experience of the animated paperclip popping up at inopportune moments with vapid questions.

It certainly feels that we are in a good place to improve upon this experience. Bots are no longer restricted by being unable to understand basic commands and are able to process natural language, understanding what we are saying even if we do so in a roundabout way. For example, Google’s AI has been given thousands of romance novels to analyse. Result? It can now write melancholic poems.

While we may struggle to find an application for AI poetry in business, it is this ability to process swathes of data, analyse tone and content, and respond appropriately which can have huge significance for enterprise. Customer service, for example, is where the technology could really come into its own. Likewise, painstakingly composed sales reports could soon become something in the distant past, as bots take this data processing on themselves.

Bot-ify work

There has been a huge amount of discussion on how robots will take our jobs, with this usually focusing on blue-collar roles. Yet, when we speak about robots stepping in to do some human tasks, we are often imagining the human forms from I, Robot or Ex Machina, while in reality we are talking about chatbots.

Chatbots will take over many administrative tasks for external and internal workflows, from speaking to customers to helping to prioritise emails, all the way to reporting. Will it have smooth sailing with staff? Probably not. According to our Way We Work study, 35 per cent of knowledge workers — those whose employment require them to 'think for a living' — don’t believe their roles will exist in five years. This anxiety from white-collar workers reflects the fears many hold around automation.

However, if you consider that the same survey revealed that 50 per cent of workers crave a more creative workplace, bots could actually usher in an age of transformation. By doing the time-consuming tasks, they could leave more personalised work for humans and allow creativity to happen. If it is difficult to imagine exactly how we will work once the bots arrive, it is because they have the potential to create a completely new way of engaging with work. Imagine two to three hours each day being freed up — what could you achieve?

Think cross-platform

However, hold on before you get swept off your feet by visions of a future workspace where humans and bots exist in harmony, there is still a long way for business to go. The first step is making sure that bots are integrated, rather than the stronghold of one business.

Firstly, customers want to speak to bots as they move between apps — just like a friend who is available across platforms. This means we need APIs that enable easy access for developers and responsive integration for end users. Bots may find it difficult to step into our offline lives, but in our online environments, they should be as mobile as possible from the start.

Secondly, businesses should consider the stepping stones for bots. Ideally, bots are there to enable better communication between humans. While this may sound counter-intuitive, bots should not eliminate human communication, but guide you to speak to the right person at the right moment in time.

Finally, bots must be smart. There is no excuse for not implementing the basics of natural language processing and cognitive science into any bot. Clippy was cute, but more than a decade later, we’ve moved into seamless communication where bots go by the mantra 'the less noticeable, the better'.

For bots to be successful, they need to have clear use cases and intelligent design. Developers and businesses need to decide what they want to achieve with them and focus on making that a reality. If bots try and be everything to everyone, it is likely they will be flawed and drive people away from actually using them. Still, the potential for them is huge. Organisations could ornament every aspect of their operations, allowing people to move away from administration tasks and let them do what they were hired to do.

Mark Smith, Senior Director of Digital at Unify