Rise of the chatbots

2016-09-04 07:45

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In June this year, anyone in the dating arena who was tired of fielding needy/weird/suspect/clingy suitors, rejoiced at the news that a new chatbot had launched: aptly named, the Ghostbot.

This clever app extension can analyse your incoming messages and automatically reply, to numbers you’ve specifically identified, with a pleasant and polite put down (with just the right amount of disinterest) so that you never have to engage with anyone you don’t want to.

For example, a repeated request for a date or to hang out will receive a counter message like, “sorry, just me and *pizza emoji* tonight”.

In essence, Ghostbot is a like cyberassistant that will send off witty replies to those you don’t have time for or really just don’t care for: it takes care of a mundane conversation on your behalf.

Chatbots are becoming more and more prolific. Short for chat robot, chatbots are simply computer algorithms that use artificial intelligence to encourage and engage in human conversation.

You’ve probably already chatted with one – you just haven’t realised that you’ve been interacting with an algorithm.

I say “interacting” because you won’t be physically speaking to a chatbot, but rather having an instant text message or online conversation with one, and this is where they really shine.

Chatbots are currently being “employed” in areas like customer service on e-commerce platforms where questions are asked frequently and repeatedly, and where standard replies need to be appropriate and informative, like in the FAQ, or frequently asked questions, section on many websites.

Soon their greatest impact will be on call centres.

The chatbot will funnel and streamline conversations, making call centres more efficient, and, as a result, customer service will be more responsive.

Once the conversation reaches a point where it becomes too complex for the chatbot, a human is able to intervene and continue with it.

Chatbots, therefore, can (for now) only be used in situations where there is a limited range of conversation regarding a specialised topic, and not for a more complex human dialogue.

I say “for now” because applications are being developed that allow two chatbots to communicate with each other, which is when the real “Rise of the Machines” takes place.

The downside of chatbot technology is that it will reduce the number of people a call centre employs: another threat of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

However, for the technophobes there is an upside.

In the same month that Ghostbot was launched, news broke that a lawyer chatbot service successfully contested 160 000 parking tickets in London and New York (for free), showing how helpful chatbots can actually be.

DoNotPay, dubbed “the world’s first robot lawyer”, was created by 19-year-old, London-born second-year Stanford University student Joshua Browder.

His DoNotPay chatbot helps users contest parking tickets using an easy conversational interface.

The chatbot first works out whether an appeal is possible, through a series of simple questions, such as “Were there clearly visible parking signs?” and then guides the user through an appeals process.

In the 21 months since this free chatbot service was launched, DoNotPay has taken on 250 000 cases and won 160 000, giving it a success rate of 64%.

In total it appealed more than $4 million (R59 million) in parking fines. Not too bad for an algorithm.

Here in South Africa, the Praekelt Foundation launched a unique chatbot at this year’s Aids conference in Durban, which could revolutionise our healthcare system.

This chatbot is programmed to answer specific questions relating to maternal healthcare and is especially helpful in rural areas, as the chatbot also works on feature phones.

It is able to provide basic, but important, information quickly and effectively to expectant and new mothers.

So, while you’ll be able to use a chatbot to order a hamburger (Burger King recently launched its own chatbot), it is when this technology is used for the greater good that the real benefits emerge.

Education, unsurprisingly, is the next wave.

National Geographic Kids UK has launched a brilliant education chatbot to teach young children about dinosaurs. Learners engage with a chatbot pretending to be a Tyrannosaurus rex called Tina.

Tina the T. Rex runs on Facebook Messenger, so chatting with her is easy and accessible. You simply log in to the National Geographic Facebook page and “Message” Tina, and she responds with this reply:

“Hello, human! I’m Tina the T. Rex. My friends at National Geographic Kids have brought me back from extinction to help you learn about my life. I’m still learning about your world, so I may not have all the answers. To get started, why not ask me about my appearance?”

From there on, conversational learning becomes not only interactive, but fun.

Many people fear the Rise of the Machines but, if we can learn to speak to them, then the possibilities are endless. But in reality, the conversation has already begun.

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com.

Join him on Metro FM tomorrow morning at 6.30, when he discusses these trends on The First Avenue show


Do you like the idea of chatbots, or are they too impersonal? Are you aware of having had a conversation with one? Tell us what you think.

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword CHAT. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

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