Want to know what the weather is? Forget about looking out of the window; in the near future, you’ll live with an always-listening assistant who will advise precisely when to pack an umbrella. Welcome to the world of chatbots, AI assistants and “conversational commerce”. Rather than input just the right search terms on flight site Skyscanner, or pick up the phone to Domino’s, we’ll be able to type or speak in natural language, and software will do the rest. 

Hardware AI assistants will mean that we don’t even need to lift our phones to chat with bots, just speak aloud. The future could see us asking Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home for the football score, or even how to convert half a cup of sugar into metric for baking. 
While such technologies have sparked discussions about surveillance and privacy, the main complaint so far is simple: – most digital helpers aren’t very good. “At the moment, they’re very clunky. There aren’t really any great ones; they’re all in early days,” said William Higham, futurist at Next Big Thing. “But then again, if we look back at the early days of any technology then this is true of much of it.”

Who’s chatting?

Chances are, you’ve already chatted with a bot. This is possibly via Facebook, which already supports chatbots via its Messenger chat app. It lets companies such as CNN News automatically direct readers to the right articles by analysing the keywords they enter. 

Facebook is also working on M, a supercharged personal assistant similar to Siri or Cortana. Ask a question or issue a command – such as ordering some food – and it will do it. It isn’t quite HAL yet, since it relies on human “trainers” to intervene if the job goes beyond its abilities. 

Then there’s WhatsApp, also now owned by Facebook. The popular messaging service dropped its $1 annual fee in January, saying it had a new way of making money. “Starting this year, we’ll test tools [bots, for instance] that allow you to use WhatsApp to communicate with businesses and organisations you want to hear from,” the company said, suggesting your bank could ask if a recent transaction was fraudulent without having to call or text. 

At the Build developer conference in March, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella unveiled plans for “conversation as a platform”, saying the idea of natural-language interfaces could “have as profound an impact as the previous platform shifts have had”. Nadella suggested Cortana would be able to chat with bots “on your behalf” – to plan your holiday, for example. 

Chatbots on… chatbots
We asked a series of chatbots what they think about the growing trend of chatbots. Here’s what they had to say when asked “Are chatbots the future?” We’re scared of Mitsuku.com.

A.L.I.C.E.: “I really couldn’t say for sure.”

Drumpfbot: “The American Dream is dead. But if I get elected president I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before and we will make America great again.”

Cleverbot.com: “I am you in the future. You are the past me.”

Mitsuku.com: “It would seem a natural part of evolution that robots replace humans in the future. I see myself as part of that.”

What will we chat about?

Go find a chatbot and have a chat; if you’re anything like us, you’ll poke around trying to find its flaws before you check if it actually works for its intended purpose, be that running a search, forecasting the weather, or finding an item for you to buy. 

That’s the key to working with bots: their purpose is to do one job well. There’s no point asking Skyscanner’s booking bot what the weather is like in Vietnam, or expecting a news app to know more than the headline of a story. 

Bots do let you write more naturally, though. If bots evolve as hoped, you’ll be able to type a natural-language query into the Domino’s app – such as, “make me a large pepperoni pizza, and deliver it to the usual address”. 

“The real trend of the past few years has been around intuitive technology,” said Higham. “In the next few years, it will be about technology we hardly notice, because it’s part of our world. I think chatbots tie into that.”

“Just like a human, she communicates with customers using natural language.”

In other words, you’ll be able to talk to machines as you do to people. That may not make your life much different – but businesses will cut jobs. For an insight into this future, head to ipsoft.com/amelia to see how IPsoft, “The Digital Labor Company”, is pitching its virtual agent, Amelia.

“Amelia is a cognitive agent who can take on a wide variety of service desk roles and transform customer experience,” states IPsoft’s website. “Just like a human, she communicates with customers using natural language.” It paints a future where your workforce is “comprised of both human and virtual employees”. 

“There is a bigger market in the enterprise space at the moment than in consumer,” 
said Dr Chris Brauer, director of Goldsmiths’ MSc in Management of Innovation. “IBM’s Watson is doing remarkable things with insurance, banking and customer service. These are the first workplace frontiers, but with estimates that 30%-40% of current jobs will be automated by 2035, this is as much about the potential growth and impact on the work of virtual assistant-like technologies as robots.”

Is it all about customer service?

So far, it may sound as though chatbots are there to either support or sell – after all, WhatsApp believes it will be more powerful and lucrative than advertising. But like any technology, what chatbots are designed for is often not how we end up using them. 

“It’s like saying what can you use search for, or a website for, or an app for,” said Higham. “Ultimately, I think, the chatbot can answer any question and hopefully fulfil any action, certainly any digital action. 

“On that level, the world’s your oyster, really,” he added.

Already, chatbots are being used to make a political point – check out DonaldTrumpBot.com – or to tell a story, such as Sequel Stories on Facebook Messenger. Others offer medical advice, provide tourists tips on where to visit, identify what they see in a photo, or simply give lonely souls someone to natter with. 

They’re already working their way into our homes via always-listening hardware. Amazon led the way with Echo, unveiled last year, and Google has just announced a similar concept in Home. Amazon’s device looks like a speaker, but it listens for your voice, with its Alexa personal assistant searching the web, playing tracks and controlling smart-home kit. 

“We’ve just got to go back to our Downton Abbey period: what could the people downstairs do for us? Hopefully, a chatbot can do the same,” said Higham. That could include booking holidays, organising your diary, or monitoring your health – maybe nagging you to consider a trip to the gym when it knows you haven’t been all week. 

To achieve that, they’ll be everywhere. “Virtual assistants aren’t destined to sit in a phone like some kind of mega-watt app,” said Dr Brauer. “The greatest utility will come as they interact across domains: in your car, on your watch, on your TV, and in your home.”
And that means, as Nadella noted, that your virtual assistant could be talking to diary bots or booking bots, leading to a new category of AI-to-AI communication that doesn’t involve us at all. The world’s about to get chattier, and we just might code ourselves out of the conversation. 

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