Suddenly, bots are everywhere. Bots are the next big platform. Bots will save us from the “app problem.”
What’s the app problem? For starters, there are too many of them. Users have trouble discovering them. App makers have trouble getting users to install and use them. And even when a user does find, install and use an app, it’s hard to keep them coming back to it.
A bot is simply an application with a “conversational user interface.” It’s an old idea recently given new life.
You interact with a bot by typing words, then getting words back from the software, which is installed on some remote server somewhere in the cloud.
Bots are supposed to be better than apps because there’s nothing to install. Just fire off the right command or question in your text or messaging app, and the information comes back to you.
The hype is coming from Microsoft, Facebook and other companies. For them, bots represent a second chance to gain a foothold in the mobile space. By replacing apps and sites with cross-platform bots, these companies are hoping to build dominant platforms that make mobile operating systems obsolete, or at least irrelevant.
It’s a long shot, but they’re encouraged by the obsession with messaging among younger users.
Microsoft, for example, recently rolled out a new bot called Tay for 18- to 24-year-olds. Users can interact with Tay on Twitter, GroupMe, Kik, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. As you interact, the bot learns more about you, including your gender, ZIP code, relationship status and other information. Microsoft says it used “improvisational comedians” to write the interaction.
However, Microsoft had to shut down Tay in late March after the bot started spouting offensive tweets with racist comments. Microsoft apologized for Tay’s behavior, and a company spokesperson told eWEEK in an email statement that it was the result “of a coordinated effort by some users to abuse Tay’s commenting skills to have Tay respond in inappropriate ways.”
While Microsoft says it will work to repair Tay’s vulnerability, this bot is really just an experimental trifle. The real initiative is Microsoft’s bot platform, where third-party developers can build their own bots, which could be summoned via Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant.
Microsoft’s Bot Framework involves a GitHub-hosted Bot Builder software development kit and other components, which enables developers to create bots for texting, Kik, Slack, Telegram and, of course, Microsoft’s Skype.
Facebook made similar noise at its F8 developer conference this month when it rolled out a bot platform for Messenger and also for building chat widgets for the Web. Facebook announced new shopping bots within Messenger, for example, that let you buy things from Spring and 1-800-FLOWERS, as well as a news bot from CNN.
But it’s not just Microsoft and Facebook vying to be the dominant bot platform. Messaging powerhouse Slack in December announced its BotKit, which is an open-source framework for building bots.
The messaging platform Telegram is luring developers with $1 million for grants to developers for building bots on its 1-year-old bot platform. It’s already got a bot store.
Kik launched a bot store this month, too. And it’s trying to make it easy for developers to build Kik bots. Furthermore, Japan’s Line this month rolled out a limited way for some developers to start creating Line bots.
Why Bots Aren’t Ready to Replace Mobile Apps
But the hype about the bot revolution is five years too early. It’s being generated by the companies that hope to dominate the space, and it’s designed to get developers on board.
Tragically, however, the breathless promises about bots are just raising expectations among users, who will be disappointed, get turned off by their limited capabilities and may never come back.
The problem is that even the bots that mostly work, don’t work as advertised. Bots like x.ai’s Amy, GoButler and many others are partly powered by human beings pretending to be software. Behind the curtains, those people answering queries are also serving to train the bot artificial intelligence system so that eventually an increasing amount of the work can be done automatically. The hype and promise is that AI is controlling the bots. But the AI technology isn’t ready.
Today, bots are just the chat equivalents of interactive voice response (IVR) systems—you know, when you call the bank and a recorded voice says press 1 to open an account, press 2 to find out your balance and press 3 to do some other thing you don’t want to do. People hate IVR. And they’ll hate bots even more.
Like IVR, bots work only in very limited circumstances. If you’ve got a shopping bot and there is only a short list of items to choose from, then it works great. But bots are useless for a store full of goods.
Facebook’s Spring shopping bot is a perfect example of how bots fail. To use the Spring bot, you identify the contact ShopSpring and then send the phrase you’ve memorized, which is “go shopping.” The bot grills you about what you’re looking for, then it will give you five suggestions.
Nobody wants to buy clothes or shoes this way. Imagine walking into a shoe store and having the shoe salesperson suggest five pairs and you’re supposed to pick one pair and buy them. The last time I shopped for shoes, I went to five stores and looked at hundreds of shoes, the overwhelming majority of which were not what I wanted.
The 1-800-FLOWERS bot makes more sense because you likely to want less choice. You probably want to order a dozen roses. And if you don’t want that, you’ll want one of a small number of flower arrangements. There’s far less choice, so it should work OK in isolation.
The problem is not only the AI, but also the data. Every conceivable option must be keyed in, and the bot systems must understand the data. While it has taken the Web decades to optimize itself for search engines, the work of optimizing data for bots has barely begun.
Countless stories have emerged this month revealing epic fails when users tried to use Facebook’s Weather Cat bot or the Spring shopping bot. Users are reporting that Facebook’s bots take minutes to respond (even telephone IVR takes just seconds).
Current bots work only if the user sends the exact input expected. But if users deviate from the expected script, as they will, the bot simply can’t respond in any useful way.
Bots are a return to the command-line user interface. You have to know exactly the right words to enter to obtain the result you want.
If apps are like the graphical Mac OS or Windows, bots are like command-line DOS.
Bots won’t work as a consumer-friendly alternative to apps until the gate-keeper application can choose the appropriate vertical bot based on the user query.
Why Bots Aren’t Ready to Replace Mobile Apps
Bots fail when the user is burdened with knowing and remembering which bots to use and memorizing the command that starts the conversation.
For artificial intelligence to choose bots for us, they have to genuinely understand human language. And not just language, but regional dialects, age-specific wording and spelling. For example, teenagers talk, spell and punctuate differently than 50-year-olds.
This is a problem that hundreds of companies, university research labs and other groups have been working on for decades. Progress on this front is very slow.
Take Siri, for example, which started as a Pentagon project before being spun out and run by some of the top virtual assistant experts and then acquired by Apple, which has been throwing resources at it for years.
Apple controls 100 percent of the Siri system, unlike bot platforms where developers build arbitrary commands and responses. Even given all that investment and all those advantages, Siri understands queries only most of the time when users have learned how to use it. Many users are turned off by Siri’s inability to handle random questions and queries.
Bots are expected to be popular because messaging apps are popular. The “logic” goes like this: Since people have their eyeballs glued to messaging apps, companies need only go where the attention is and everyone will succeed.
This is the worst assumption I’ve seen the industry make in a long time.
People use messaging in part because it’s free from complexity, marketing and advertising. Companies falsely assume that the messaging halo effect will rub off on their bot-based marketing efforts. It won’t. If bots aren’t forced on users, they’ll be ignored. If they are forced on users, bots are more likely to kill messaging as the hot social platform.
I enjoy chatting with family and friends in my favorite messaging app. That doesn’t mean I want to use that app for banking, shopping and getting news.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella proclaimed recently that “bots are the new apps.” And he’s right, but not in the way he intended.
Bots are being promoted and highlighted one at a time, in isolation. And in isolation, some bots are great. X.ai’s Amy, for example, is excellent. And the 1-800-FLOWERS bot might be a good way to order flowers.
But in aggregate—as a user interface category—bots are problematic.
If bots succeed—if thousands of companies build them—there will soon be far more bots than users can handle, find, remember or use. The idea that bots are a solution to the app problem is wishful thinking.
Let’s fast-forward three years, and estimate conservatively that consumers are confronted with 50,000 individual bots available from hundreds of bot stores. Each bot has its own unique, specific commands that must be memorized by the user in order to launch and use it.
You end up with the “app problem,” but worse. How will users discover them? And, once discovered and used, how will they remember to go back to them? Bot fatigue will turn users off from the whole category.
At least apps have a visible icon presence on your phone to remind you they exist. And apps don’t require you to know the magic words to activate them.
Bots are a great idea, and they will inevitably change the world. But not for many years—not until machines can truly understand human language and when bot platforms can choose individual bots for you intelligently.
So don’t believe the hype about bots.