Friday, September 08, 2017

Chatbots revisited

I originally wrote this for ITWorld in 2002. Back then we called them IM Bots. The term "chatbot" hadn't been invented. Some other parts of my language in the following are quaint now looking back on it. I.e. PDAs. Quaint language aside, still relevant today I believe.

Instant messaging has a very important psychological aspect to it. The immediacy and familiarity of the text-based "chat" paradigm feels very natural to us humans. Even the most technophobic among us, can quickly get the hang of it and engage - psychologically - in the game of visualizing a person on the other side of the link - typing away just like us to create a textual conversation.

Like all powerful communication paradigms, instant messaging can be used for good or ill. We are all familiar with the dangers inherent with not knowing who we are talking to or indeed if they are who they say they are.

Here is a "conversation" between IM Bot Bob and me:

Sean: Hi

Bob: Hello Sean: Is Paul there? Bob: No, back tomorrow afternoon.

Sean: Is boardroom available tomorrow afternoon?
Bob: Yes Sean: Can you book it for me?
Bob: 2-5, booked.
Sean: Thanks Bob: You're welcome

Is Bob a real person? Does it matter? As a "user" of the site that "Bob" allows me to interact with, do I care?

Given a choice between talking to Bob and interacting with a traditional thin or thick graphical user interface which would you choose?

Despite all the glitz and glamour of graphical user interfaces, my sense is that a lot of normal people would prefer to talk to Bob. Strangely perhaps, I believe a lot of technically savvy people would too. These dialogs have the great advantage that you get in, get the job done and get out with minimum fuss. Also (and this could be a killer argument for IM bots), they are easily supported on mobile devices like phones, PDAs, etc. You don't need big horsepower and an 800x600 display to engage with IM bots. You can use your instant messenger client to talk to real people, or to real systems with equal ease. Come to think of it, you cannot tell the difference.

Which brings us to the most important point about IM bots from a business perspective. Let us say you have an application deployed with a traditional thick or thin graphical interface. What does a user do if they get stuck? They phone a person and engage in one-on-one conversation to sort out the problem.

Picture a scene in which your applications have instant messenger interfaces. Your customer support personnel monitor the activity of the bots. If a bot gets stuck, the customer support person can jump into the conversation to help out. Users of the system, know they can type "help" to get the attention of the real people watching over the conversation. In this scenario, real people talk to real people - not on a one-on-one way, but in a one-to-many way resulting in better utilization of resources. On the other side of the interaction, customers feel an immediacy in their comfortable, human-centric dialog with the service and know that they can ask human questions and get a human answer.

The trick, from an application developer's point of view, is to make it possible for the IM bot to automate the simple conversations and only punt to the human operator when absolutely required. Doing this well involves some intelligent natural language processing and an element of codified language on the part of customers. Both of which are entirely possible these days. Indeed, instant messaging has its own mini-language for common expressions and questions which is becoming part of techno-culture. In a sense, the IM community is formulating a controlled vocabulary itself. This is a natural starting point for a controlled IM bot vocabulary.

I believe there is a significant opportunity here for business applications based on the conversational textual paradigm of IM. However, the significant security issues of IM bots will need to be addressed before companies feel it is safe to reap the benefits the technology so clearly offers.