While some of us may still remember the introduction of the first chatbot, Eliza, created in 1966 by Joseph Weizenbaum at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the last 50 years have seen that same technology and software develop rapidly into sophisticated autonomous machines.
Artificial Intelligence systems are now incorporated into everyday operations and consumer products. At the same time, organisations have started to integrate autonomous processes into the workplace, and simpler tasks are increasingly performed by robots in place of humans.
Many have marked this as a quiet revolution of our time. Apple’s Siri voice assistant was absorbed into our daily lives without the media storm that such a disruptive piece of technology forecasted. Businesses have been slow to capitalise, too. For many years, there were few significant commercial transformations for chatbots, even as public interest, trust, and uptake in AI gradually increased.
However, the functionality and power of chatbot and AI technology is growing, and its usefulness in shaping our future is undeniable. Unlike the false dawn for bots we saw back in 2015 and 2016 — where the reality simply didn’t live up to the hype — the bot revolution is evidently gathering momentum, and businesses and consumers alike are starting to take note and make changes to adapt.
Creeping chatbot revolution
While I suspect that Weizenbaum grasped something of the genius of the machine he had created, he may not have fully realised its true transformative potential. Similarly, people today don’t yet recognise exactly how Artificial Intelligence stands to radically alter life as they know it.
In fact, we are already using AI in many aspects of our everyday existence — often without even realising it. From ordering food (think of Domino’s much-hyped Facebook Messenger experiment) to asking Siri for the weather forecast and recruiting Alexa to DJ for us in the early hours, even the self-professed technophobes among us have probably used voice technology to conveniently call someone from the hands-free system in their car while on the move. But tell us that we’re already proficient users of AI, and we will most likely disagree with you.
This may well be because our adoption of AI is, above all, a natural response to changes in our habits and behaviour, and so makes for a seamless integration into our everyday lives. We value convenience more than ever, and we want to be able to communicate quickly, easily, and at whatever time suits us via the channel of our choosing. Essentially, AI complements our routines so well that we often do not even notice it in action.
The business case for bots
How are businesses adapting to this trend and embracing bots and AI? The way consumers communicate with brands has undergone a serious transformation of late. Although social media is transforming our society, that’s not necessarily the method of choice for a consumer to communicate with businesses, where a message can get lost in a sea of comments. And people certainly don’t want to be put on hold, waiting endlessly in a telephone queue to resolve an issue as simple as changing their banking password or home address. The frustration of calling 0800 numbers means that consumers are turning to 1:1 messaging more and more for customer service queries.
With messaging becoming the preferred form of communication for consumers, businesses need to ensure they have the manpower to handle the onslaught of incoming inquiries. Bots are the ideal solution: enabling personal interactions, handling requests quickly, and providing instant answers at any time of day (or night). And bots need not operate alone; recent developments in hybrid bots allow automated systems to respond quickly to simpler customer demands (such as changing passwords or providing information about store hours, etc.) and seamlessly hand off the conversation to human representatives when presented with more complex queries.
As more and more consumers connect with brands via messaging platforms, bots can field simpler enquiries to ensure agents are not overwhelmed. This frees up time for human agents to answer more difficult questions, boosting productivity in the workplace, while the customer benefits from a much more efficient and fluid user experience.
The bot crush
The bots we’ll see in the near future might not seem particularly sophisticated, but current generations — much like Eliza before them — will have a profound impact on the bot technology to come. The efficiency of our everyday interactions will reach new levels, and, almost without anyone noticing at all, bots will be integrated into every tranche of our lives.
We’re now starting to see leading authorities across the world acknowledge, respond to and prepare for a future that heavily features AI. In the UK, the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence recently published a report entitled “AI in the UK: Ready, willing and able?”, outlining a need to avoid sensationalist depictions of AI in the media, and to inform businesses as to how best to integrate these systems into everyday operations. As awareness grows and AI continues to make the headlines, investment from leading businesses and institutions grows too, paving the way for a new and groundbreaking era of these disruptive technologies.
For now though, it’s important that we don’t demand too much from bots or expect an absolute technological revolution in the next few years. Perhaps the most significant change since the false dawn of bots is the recognition that, to be successful, bots needs to start small and scale up. The more specific a bot’s remit, the more likely it is to be able to see a customer interaction through to completion — with positive results.
As bots become more present in our daily lives as well as behind the scenes, their genius will transform every interaction. Developments since the days of Eliza have been astounding — and as leading businesses start to invest in and prioritise the adoption of these technologies, the enormous impact of this once “quiet” revolution is becoming loud and clear.
Alan Ranger, EMEA Marketing Director, LivePerson
Image source: Shutterstock/Montri Nipitvittaya