Chatbots have become a big topic of discussion at startups, venture capital firms, and Fortune 500s alike. There's a lot of talk (and hype) around whether bots will take over customer service or whether chatbots will replace apps. That's not to mention artificial intelligence and voice assistants like Siri and Google Assistant.

There's a lot of information to absorb when it comes to chabots. Should my business have a chatbot? Should I start a bot company? These are the kinds of questions I get a lot, so let's talk about the basics of chatbots, why they can do, and why they matter.

If you've been wondering what chatbots are -- and whether they are here to stay -- read on:

#1) What exactly is a chatbot?

A chatbot is a computer you can talk to via messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, Kik, Line, WhatsApp, WeChat, iMessage, and SMS. Chatbots can automatically respond to messages you receive for you.

Modern-day chatbots provide much of the functionality that mobile apps provide while living in a messaging conversation. They are used for customer support, automatically answering questions, delivering content, and even games and entertainment. But they also have capabilities nobody has yet discovered or built.

Think of chatbots like early websites -- they may be simple now, but they will be able to do almost anything you can dream up eventually.

#2) Messaging platforms are now used by more people worldwide than social networks.

Business Insider has been tracking the growth of the top four messaging apps (Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Line, WeChat) versus the growth of the top four social networks, and it isn't even close:

Messaging apps have surpassed social networks.

Not only is messaging bigger than social networks, but messaging's growth outpaces the social networking benchmark. This is one of the core reasons why chatbots have become a hot topic in the tech industry.

#3) Chatbots are the most scalable way for businesses to communicate with their customers on messaging platforms.

Before bots took over our phone systems, businesses would have to employ thousands of customer service representatives to answer the phones to deal with customer complaints. And while customer service centers are still a thing, they are undeniably smaller than they were decades ago.

Why did businesses switch to automated phone systems? Simple: it's scalable and more efficient. One person can only talk to one person at a time (usually), but a bot can talk to thousands of people simultaneously.

Chatbots offer a similar value proposition to businesses, but a larger scale and with vastly more capabilities. They can communicate with thousands of people simultaneously, answering their questions or helping them with their problems. With messaging becoming the preferred form of communication for more and more consumers, it's inevitable that they will want to deal with customer service via text, iMessage, Messenger, Kik, or whatever messaging platform they prefer.

#4) Chatbots are wildly popular in China due to WeChat's popularity.

WeChat bot

China has been on the chatbot bandwagon for years, but for good reason. Unlike the U.S., the Chinese Internet is more regulated, which has made WeChat the Facebook of China, even though it's primarily a messaging platform. Its chatbots act more like lightweight apps where you can book a dentist, subscribe to content, and build complex programs.

From Michael Yuan, author of Chatbots: Building Intelligent Bots, explains how bots are perceived in China:

In WeChat jargon, a bot chat account is called a "public account". First off, the WeChat "public account" bot program is extremely successful. If you start a business in China today, you will create a WeChat public account bot well before you have a website.

Remarkably, there is a new crop of VC funded content companies that operate exclusively in WeChat -- they do not even have web sites despite being valued tens of millions of US dollars. Consider that the Chinese Internet censors can delete any WeChat public account (and take all the millions of followers with it) for any vaguely defined "offensive content", it is testimony to how indispensable WeChat's bot ecosystem has become in business and in everyday life.

These bots, divided into "subscription accounts" (for content) and "service accounts" (for customer service), dominate not just WeChat, but much of the online activity in China.

#5) Chatbots aren't new, but they've evolved.

Smarterchild AIM chatterbot

Just as VR has come into its own in the last few years but has been around for decades, chatbots aren't a new technology, either. In the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) days, dozens of "chatterbots" interacted with millions of people. These early chatbots could make simple responses based on user prompts -- often to hilarious or weird results.

SmarterChild, which you see above, was especially popular on AIM and led to an era of conversational bots, most of them for novelty. Its hilarious responses to early Internet users trying to troll it made it a viral sensation for its time. However, without any real utility, chatterbots eventually fell by the wayside.

The concept of chatbots isn't new  --  it's their technical capabilities and utility that are.

#6) Today's chatbots are more like apps than "chatterbots".

While AOL chatterbots were limited to simulating conversations, today's chatbots have far more capabilities, thanks to the access developers have to platforms like WeChat, Facebook Messenger, and Apple iMessage.

It's true that some developers are trying to replicate what AOL chatterbots did in the 2000s, but the smartest companies are building bots that can showcase content, integrate with customer service, let you purchase merchandise or tickets, assist you with daily tasks, and much more.

The interfaces of modern chatbots have evolved from their chatterbot ancestors:

Modern chatbots are less chat and more app.

#7) "Smart" chatbots are still a few years away, but there's room to grow.

Many people in the chatbot space like to talk about their company's natural language processing (NLP), natural language understanding (NLU) or artificial intelligence (AI) technology. And while we've made great strides in all these areas as a society, we are still faraway from a truly smart assistant that can talk like a human and understand everything you say.

Want proof? Just look at Microsoft's Tay bot, which quickly devolved into racist and sexist language after extensive trolling. Even Siri and Alexa, two of the most advanced voice assistants on the planet, are still limited in their scope and ability to understand natural language. Chatbots will eventually be able to imitate people, but we are still years away from the next level.

With that said, chatbots are still capable of a tremendous amount of things, from simple conversations to scheduling to parsing content. The future is on its way!

Where do I learn more about chatbots?

Want to further your bot education? Here are some suggestions for where to go next to learn more about chatbots:

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Published on: Oct 5, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.