This column is authored by Judy Alex, Research Writer at Ingic
Chatbots, in case you aren’t familiar, are software programs that automatically chat with human beings. Their history dates back to the 1960s, when a machine program known as “Eliza” was able to respond to specific types of phrases with pre-scripted quotes. Over the course of decades, computer scientists and programmers attempted to create more sophisticated chatbots, able to truly “understand” what people are saying and generate novel responses—all while seeming human—but it’s been an incredibly difficult task.
Now, we’re finally starting to enter an era where chatbots are commonplace, and they’re about to be incredibly important for several different applications.
Why Such a Breakthrough?
So why are we seeing this breakthrough now?
- Natural language processing. The main limitation for chatbots has been natural language processing. Though we speak it fluidly and without issue on a daily basis, human language is extraordinarily complex, with multiple meanings of words based on context and a practically limitless vocabulary. It’s impossible to program a machine to understand an entire language word by word, but modern programmers have learned that you can teach a machine how to learn a language on its own through AI (like in the case of IBM’s Watson). Advancements here have made it possible to grow better chatbot systems—and faster.
- Enterprise development. The formula for creating a chatbot is starting to become more accessible for business owners, rather than being restricted to the realm of advanced engineering. Chatty People, for example, gives business owners the tools they need to create chatbots for almost any application they choose.
- Consumer acceptance. Consumer acceptance of dealing with robots, rather than people, has also increased. Customers increasingly prefer automated solutions because they’re faster and easier—but even if they didn’t, the fact that most modern chatbots can pass the Turing test means humans wouldn’t know the difference anyway.
The Five Main Areas of Development
So where can we expect to see the fastest growth rate of chatbots?
1. Customer service
One of the most obvious uses for chatbots is customer service—and you might have encountered one of these bots already, without realizing it. Most websites, upon visiting, will have a small live chat tool present to help you find information that you need. Historically, these have been manned by human beings, but it’s far more cost effective these days to have bots fielding simple requests. If a request grows too difficult, they can always forward it to a human representative. Customer service chatbots are even starting to be used over the phone, replacing the overly mechanical dial tone-based phone menus that drive us all crazy.
Recently, Facebook developed an experimental AI program that mimicked Albert Einstein, engaging with users in natural conversation and doling out facts about his life as if you were having a conversation with the man himself. It wasn’t entirely immersive, and probably didn’t capture the complexities of his personality, but it did show off the capacity for chatbots’ use as educational tools. If chatbots can be programmed to act like historical figures, or even provide users with basic information, they could make education more accessible and more engaging for most populations.
3. Mental health
A New Zealand startup known as Soul Machines is focusing on the emotional element of chatbots, creating programs like Nadia, which have the capacity to interpret human emotions based on conversational inputs like tone and word choice. Eventually, these findings could radically progress how we think about and treat mental health issues. Emotional sensitivity and compassionate responses are exactly what we need to recognize and address complex internal states.
Finally, chatbots are being used as modes of personal assistance, and the best example here is still Siri (and other digital assistants like it). These chatbots are usually connected to an operating system, and are capable of thousands of functions, including playing music, performing online searches, and even buying products online. Smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home are also becoming more popular, introducing more users to the reality of controlling their lives through voice commands. The more accepted it becomes, the higher demand will rise for these features.
If you’re a consumer, be on the lookout for chatbots to take over these five main areas of your life. If you’re a business owner or an investor, now’s the time to jump on these opportunities. Voice recognition and natural language processing have seen massive breakthroughs over the past five years or so, and they’re only going to grow more sophisticated from here. Soon, any conversation you have with a human being could be quickly replicable through the use of machine learning algorithms.