Facebook's Bots and Chatbots: How Do They Measure Up So Far?
While bot and chatbot technology is far from new, Facebook's new approach -- unveiled earlier this week at its F8 developer conference -- to the concept of intelligent conversation agents has garnered massive media attention. Early reviews of Facebook's bots so far, though, show the technology still has shortcomings as well as great potential.
Among the new offerings unveiled at F8 was Facebook's Messenger Platform, which is now live in beta. The platform enables businesses to develop and promote bots that can provide automated help to online customers with a variety of needs ranging from shopping for shoes to rescheduling flight times to avoid missed connections.
Facebook Messenger bots already in action include a shopping assistant for the e-commerce site Spring, an animated cat named Poncho that provides weather forecasts and advice, and CNN's news bot. Other tech companies also using bots to interact with users include Kik Messenger, Slack, Twitter and Google.
Chatting with Bots 'Dull'
So far, users who have taken the limited number of bots currently available through Facebook Messenger for a test drive have given them mixed reviews.
Gizmodo, for example, described them as "dull conversationalists" with whom conversations are "like trying to talk politics with a toddler." Poncho, for example, doesn't appear able to reference a user's previous comments for subsequent responses, meaning every chat interaction "exists in a vacuum."
Poncho CEO Sam Mandel acknowledged the bot has problems that need fixing. "We need to add more natural language processing, and that's what we're working on right now," he told Gizmodo.
While big brands appear eager to adopt the technology in a big way, Mashable offers this warning about current bots: "don't expect them to hold a great conversation anytime soon." When asked to find information about some news topics, for instance, CNN's bot responds with a text-based shrug and suggests that the user try again.
The 'Dark Side' of Bots
Such reviews indicate that bots are still not as "intelligent" as their developers would like them to be. Microsoft has discovered that as well with its recent bot personalities, including the 20-something Tay and CaptionBot.
Twitter users, for example, have had fun in the past few days posting some of CaptionBot's less-than-successful attempts at describing images. A well-known still photograph from "Star Wars" of Darth Vader raising his fist after Luke Skywalker leaps into an abyss rather than join the dark side is described by CaptionBot this way: "I am not really confident, but I think it's a man taking a selfie in front of a building."
Microsoft's millennial chatbot Tay, meanwhile, has been placed in indefinite suspended animation after "learning" from Twitter trolls how to spout racist and other offensive comments.
With such shortcomings still readily apparent, why are so many businesses banking on bots? For many, the technology promises a way to help resolve customer requests and complaints more quickly and easily, or make interactions more seamless by integrating conversations across multiple platforms and channels.
Companies like Google, on the other hand, see chatbots as a critical part of their future. "If more people turn to chatbots to answer questions about restaurants or products, they'll spend less time typing search queries into Google's search bar. Google's very livelihood could depend on this going well," Forbes noted in an article in December.
In the near future, many other companies are planning to launch bots through Facebook's Messenger Platform. They include Bank of America, Salesforce, StubHub and Zendesk.
Image Credit: Facebook Messenger chatbots (screenshots), pictured above, via Facebook.
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Posted: 2016-11-18 @ 8:47am PT
Is a bot an online chat room or like messenger talk?