You already know them well. Those little chat boxes that let you interact not with a person, but with a bot that simulates a person. Right now, they're most popular as customer service tools. But in the not-so-distant future, these programs are going to transform like Bumblebee into personal chatbots and change business communication forever.

Here's your desk, user ID and, oh yeah, a personal assistant

Chris O'Neal, evangelist at software company Workfront, says that other current communication options, such as regular instant messaging, are distracting and take up too much time. He predicts that, in the upcoming year, chatbots will take over much of business interaction and help perform work. Think Google Assistant, only purposely issued to employees by a business during the onboarding process.

"We will begin to separate our communication into tiers," O'Neal says. "One tier aimed at the chatbot for specific tasks, and another tier for our fellow human that requires critical, human thinking. The lower tier of communication with our chatbots will initially be single-step, request-driven queries: Can you [chatbot] send me Jane's presentation on next year's sales plan? I need to schedule an hour for me and John to meet on Thursday or Friday."

No need to seem human required

Now, I know what you're thinking. It's going to be creepy to think we're talking to a person at work when we're not, right? People saw Google Assistant making calls earlier this year that way, largely because the assistant initially didn't identify itself as not being human in demos.

But O'Neal asserts that's not going to be a problem, and that we'll actually be able to trust the personal chatbots quite well.

"[We] will finally have discontinued this idiotic fad of trying to disguise the use of chatbots by passing them off as real people," he asserts. "Why did we ever think that was needed? As society continues its drive toward greater transparency in digital spaces, chatbots will be programmed to openly identify themselves as chatbots, so that humans know exactly what to expect from the interaction, who/what they are interacting with, and when they get passed off to a genuine human. If businesses do not self-impose this practice, then it will be impelled upon them by force of regulation. Our communication with chatbots should be purposeful and specific, not conflated with the misguided notion of having them mimic humans, and poorly at that. At some point in the not-too-distant future, AI will have advanced sufficiently to counterfeit a great range of human conversation. But it's not there today, and there is no need to try and make it seem so."

Little program, big benefit

O'Neal presents the goal for business communication overall as being much the same as it is within customer service--take out the little stuff, the time-consuming unnecessaries that bite at your ability to focus on key initiatives or larger issues. While the assistants get the "junk" or mundane jobs done for you, you can have more real, purposeful conversations that build your relationships and propel the business forward faster.

"To make this a reality will require organizations that adopt next-generation thinking in terms of team productivity, worker experience and future work environments. Honestly, the technical hurdles are not that great. It's the organizational and cultural values that will require a bit of retooling so that this model of worker assistance, through personal chatbots, can become widely accepted and useful at the enterprise level."

For many people, going through this kind of mindset shift just takes actually seeing the usefulness or results of the technology in action. We regularly set up auto responses for email now, for example, because we've proven it works consistently, and because we understand the interpersonal and corporate value of others knowing our availability or a specific message. And today, over a third of customers (34 percent) accept artificial intelligence chatbots in online retail. As we're becoming more comfortable with chatbots in service, Juniper Research predicts that as much as 85 percent of business-customer interaction will happen through these types of programs by 2020. Moving chatbots into other business arenas thus is a logical next step.

So have a vision. What do you want to do while your personal chatbot works for you? How much more do you want to accomplish? Set the bar sensibly high, then stand on the program and jump.

Published on: Dec 20, 2018