Facebook has almost two billion active users. At a developer conference today, the company announced plans to connect even more, and Mark Zuckerberg hinted at a near-future scenario where A.I.-controlled bots will answer basic questions via the Messenger app.
Why is that such a big announcement? Because 2016 is the year of the chatbots, a turning point when the A.I. that drives these machines can imitate human speech, respond to queries, help you find the right product online, and troubleshoot problems. In fact, while there is no way to prove it, there's a good chance you have already chatted online with a customer service bot--say, at one of those pop-ups you see at an online store or when you visit a big-name brand site.
More important, we need the help. Shoppers in particular have started making regular, repeated, almost robotic (ahem) trips to Amazon.com to buy goods. You can now order a pizza from Domino's by talking to an Amazon Echo, by text, or even by sending an emoji on Twitter. Businesses of all sizes provide customer service the way we have always done it: A person responds by email, voice, text, or on social media. But thousands and thousands of requests go unanswered or misunderstood. In the same way robotic technology can look in all directions at once around a car and never gets tired or irritable, a chatbot can field questions at all hours of the day and answer the same question about an iPhone case over and over again.
Chatbots meet a felt need. Customers are now accustomed to texting in questions and we absolutely hate waiting in a queue on the phone. We know technology has the answer. We also know we are not asking anyone to invent cold fusion. We just need to return some jeans to Amazon. The minor blips in the e-commerce ordering process can be instantly resolved by chatbots who can be instructed to follow the exact same procedure with everyone. A chatbot is never impolite or picks favorites.
And, as with any emerging robotics tech, this is not about replacing humans or sending them to the unemployment line. When large companies like Best Buy start employing a legion of chatbots, it means the customer service representatives can move into a much more fulfilling role. They can take on the challenging cases instead of repeating the same script. They can build a relationship or help someone calm down a bit. They can analyze the finer details. Chatbots move to the front lines, where they already exist on the phone to direct people to the right support material.
That said, the jury is still out on whether chatbots can handle much more than basic questions. The Microsoft Tay experiment proved that A.I. can be easily duped or misdirected. When trolls decide to attack a chatbot, it is all too willing to play along. Facebook has likely created rules of engagement, and the Microsoft bot on Twitter was meant as a social experiment, not as a real business tool.
Yet, we don't really know yet if this will work.
Facebook launched the M chatbot a few months ago, but only for folks in San Francisco. And, it's a combination of A.I. and real people assisting with ordering flowers or arranging a pizza delivery. If the chatbots work, we will barely notice them. If they cause problems, we'll start wondering if this is just another experiment.