Human answers to bot questions from MobileBeat 2016

GUEST: The annual VentureBeat conference, MobileBeat 2016, was all about the new tech rage: bots.
While many of the attendees represented bot companies, there was also a large crowd of people skeptical about the new bot phenomenon and looking for answers to the rumors. Are bots replacing apps? Are bots a fad? What is the future of bots?
Over two days, speakers took the stage and laid out the defining features of bots today. Some contemplated how bots can be utilized, while others presented the features of their fresh-out-of-beta bots. We heard from many thought leaders, one of them being Chris Messina, who invented the hashtag and is a developer experience lead at Uber. Messina predicted the explosion of what he termed “conversational commerce” in 2015, shortly after launching the first bot in Facebook Messenger, which allowed users to call an Uber.
We also heard the point of view of those who create the platform for bots, the messaging apps. Kik president Josh Jacobs shared his take on the integration of bots, which Kik began after getting their Bot Shop going in April.
Lastly, of course, we heard from the bot makers themselves. Some people announced the launch of their bot on stage, while others like Eugenia Kuyda explained their experience with bots. Kuyda and her team created a chatbot named Marfa for Telegram Messenger, from which she gained a lot of insight into what people wanted from a bot. Not long after, they made a few other bots for characters from the popular HBO show Silicon Valley for Telegram and Luka, a platform she cofounded. Luka was originally only able to help users make restaurant reservations and suggest plates, but in April they updated the platform to include the integration of bots that could perform many other tasks.
With an overwhelming number of bot experts in the room, it was time for those of us who have only just entered the bot scene to get down to the bottom of it and find out the answers to our questions. Jacobs from Kik and Messina from Uber made sure to clarify the answer to our first question, Are bots replacing apps?, right away. They made it clear that bots are different from apps and are not replacing them. Bots interact with the user in a different way than an application does. Rather than searching for something, as you do in an app, the bot presents you with information and creates a connection with you by engaging in conversation. Messina described the bot, app, and web trifecta as a spectrum on which they are all connected but each entertains a different interaction with users. So why are people so enthralled with the bot side of the spectrum?
This takes us to our next question: Are bots a fad? The takeoff of bots is very much linked to the popularity of mobile messaging apps. Not only are people using messaging apps, such as WhatsApp and WeChat, to chat with friends, but also to brainstorm and collaborate with coworkers. Slack and HipChat are bringing businesses into the bot world, creating a market for enterprise bots. Both businesses young and old are adopting messaging apps, making it more common to hear someone say “ping me” in the workplace than “email me.”
This shift in the workplace highlights one of the key reasons everyone is working to put a bot on the market as soon as possible. Companies are aiming to be the bot that businesses will choose and stick with. In many cases the bot race is about who creates the most effective bot solution first. The longer a bot has been on the market, the more likely that the company has worked out the kinks and improved the user interface, making it an easy choice for businesses only just starting to integrate bots into their workplace.
If you aren’t already using a chat application, you likely will be soon. Some 1.4 billion consumers are expected to use a mobile messaging app this year, with 2 billion expected by 2018. Such a statistic helped the skeptics in the MobileBeat 2016 audience realize that the growth of bots has barely begun and will only continue to improve and thrive with the growth of messaging app usage. This kind of growth is not surprising in the technological world, but it does suggest that, unlike a fad that fades in and out, bots hit the market and took off.
On the contrary, bots are getting brighter and brighter, which leads us to our final question: What is the future of bots? Messaging applications allow you to interact with Health Tap, which will provide you with a doctor’s advice, or Pizza Hut, which will order your regular extra veggie pizza. “If people are spending most of their time in messaging applications, we have to think about how to meet them where they are. People will always gravitate to what is easiest,” said Baron Concors, global chief digital officer of Pizza Hut.
As the capabilities of bots expand, so does the complexity of their interactions. Lauren Kunze from Pandorabots, a web service for creating and launching chatbots, explained the success of the Mitsuku chatbot, and Kuyda from Luka described people’s love for the Marfa chatbot. These bots provide people with a human-like interaction, and will listen to people’s thoughts and feelings without judgment. The intelligence of bot conversation is only going to continue to increase as companies like msg.ai provide natural language processing tools for bots, enabling the bots to understand complicated queries such as those with double-negatives.
This being said, we also heard from Joe Zadeh of Airbnb, who believes that bots will never be able to replace human interaction; he does however think that they can help enable people to communicate. Bots can take care of the tasks that will allow people to spend more time focusing on meaningful actions. In the case of Airbnb, bots could take care of petty processes and give hosts the chance to add personal touches such as handwritten notes for their guest or the addition of flowers to the bedside table.
Although bots are not aiming to replace human experience, Esther Crawford of Olabot is providing ways for entertainers to reach out to fans or for your fans to interact with you through personal bots. She brought the conference to a close with the launching of Olabot, a personal bot-making platform. The launch was kicked off by the release of Redfoo from LMFAO’s personal bot on Facebook Messenger. He has programmed the bot to reply to common fan questions, and if the fans are lucky, Redfoo will reply to questions he didn’t include in the program or even go live and chat. Redfoo might not have been the first person to come to mind when you thought about bot fanatics, but he got bitten by the bot bug. He told the crowd about how he found Esther, letting his inner bot love shine through: “I was searching for bots, because I was like ‘I LOVE the bots.’ Then I found Esther and sent her a message saying ‘I love your bot’.”
The immense love for bots is not because they are perfect. There are still some pretty big questions that have yet to be answered, but the technology is only in a beta stage and as Spotify‘s Brendan O’Driscoll said, “There is more thinking and learning to do.” With a multitude of bots emerging, we need to come up with a way to combat the issue of discoverability; and as bots continue to develop their functionality, questions of privacy and security will emerge. With all of this said, MobileBeat 2016 was a peek into the future of commerce and communication, with virtual participants even zooming around on video robots. Soon enough, every business and person will have their own personal bot!
A version of this post originally appeared on Medium.
Human answers to bot questions from MobileBeat 2016
Human answers to bot questions from MobileBeat 2016



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