I was starting to get a little concerned that President Obama doesn't have enough to do in the the White House these days, what with his term ending soon.

Now, a new personal chatbot for Facebook Messenger, created by his administration, can accept questions from anyone and send them along. As the bot makes clear, Obama reads a minimum of ten letters from everyday folks per day. The bot now makes it easier for people to send those messages, and for him to read them.

The bot is not all that advanced, but it does reveal a trend in technology that has some interesting lessons for anyone trying to deal with information overload.

First, after posting your question, the bot walks you through a series of confirmations. You respond, then wait a few minutes. You even get a chance to rephrase your question. Then, in what is sure to be a security nightmare, you have to confirm your identity by handing over your email address, home address, phone number, and zip code to a bot that makes no effort to provide any assurances about how this information will be used or who gets to see it (more on that another time).

What's so amazing about this is that it shows how technology is changing. A chatbot is a brilliant way to parse information. There's no human involved with any of this, which means the administration can reduce quite a bit of data overload and still engage with the public in a way that seems genuine and real. The bot doesn't have much of a personality, but we all know by now that Obama himself is an introvert and doesn't get all worked up about issues, which is a good thing for someone who has access to the nuclear codes, so maybe that's a good match for a chatbot--measured, reliable, not given to outbursts, and not too much sarcasm.

My view is that chatbots serve a great purpose for now and will serve an even greater purpose in the future. If you don't have one for your business, it's an opportunity to spread your message quickly and easily, to do some initial sales work, to promote a new product, and to build up an audience. Bots can chat when you are doing other things. They never argue with a customer. They don't need lunch breaks. Yes, they are fairly limited today, but soon enough even the Obama chatbot will likely expand and provide other services--perhaps even reminding the public about his viewpoints (for these last few months in office) and government programs.

I'm in the process of building my own personal chatbot. I want to go through all of the steps, from coding and learning the basic A.I. routines to customizing the bot. My goal is to have a way for the bot to answer basic requests that normally come in through email, mostly for PR folks who get irritated with me (sorry) when I don't respond quickly. I'll update you soon on how this is coming along.

Where could this go from there? The President Obama bot is likely one of many, many other bots for those in public service. There will be bots for the post office, for the IRS, and for your local power company. Neighbors will have bots that arrange block parties. Someday, your business bot will deal directly with another business bot. This is not about replacing humans, it's about putting humans into different roles where they can think deeper about topics. If a chatbot handles basic post office requests, it means we'll get the mail faster. If a bot parses out your tax return faster and asks a few key questions, you'll get a refund faster (and without any errors). When the President of the United States has a bot, people will feel like they have a voice and can share their concerns and opinions. It's a bright new day.

Published on: Aug 10, 2016
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