Back in January, we talked about how the killer app of 2016 wasn’t going to be an app at all, but would instead be the chatbots that were poised to take over our favorite messaging apps, making it possible to complete tasks like shopping or contacting customer service — all without leaving the app where you stave off boredom by texting your friends or coordinate dinner plans with your significant other. Less than halfway through the year, Facebook is opening up its Facebook Messenger app to any company that wants to create a bot to interact with users.
But before we get into the specifics of Facebook’s announcement, you might be wondering: What are chatbots, exactly, and why would you want to interact with one when alternatives like navigating to a company’s website or chatting with a customer service rep are still available? A chatbot is simply a piece of software that’s designed to simulate a conversation with a human user (like you), usually in the interest of giving you information that you want or enabling you to complete a transaction. Many chatbots use a type of artificial intelligence called natural language processing to respond to your commands or requests for information, though earlier chatbots simply scanned for keywords and sent you the most relevant reply from a database.
As to why you’d talk to a piece of software instead of calling customer service or scouring a website for information? Facebook, at least, is betting on the convenience factor of being able to contact dozens of companies and brands right from Messenger, even though, as Nick Statt reports for The Verge, the new Messenger bots don’t offer instantaneous responses and are, in his assessment, “the slowest way to use the Internet.”
Facebook’s big announcement at its F8 developer conference was that it’s opening Messenger to any company that wants to create a bot that can interact with Messenger users, but many of the first bots on Facebook’s platform promise information like weather forecasts and news updates “within an hour,” and a lot of your interactions with a bot will involve asking for a piece of information and waiting to see if the bot returns the right data, complete with the “typing bubbles” that usually indicate that the person on the other end of the conversation is typing a response.
Nonetheless, there’s no getting around the fact that the mobile web is slow and frustrating to begin with. And if you can put up with some delays and the back-and-forth that a conversation with a bot basically guarantees, chatbots can offer an easier, if not more efficient, way to order lunch at work or buy an outfit for an impending event when you’d rather spend your time doing something else. Mike Isaac reports for The New York Times that by opening Messenger to chatbots, Facebook is aiming to “usher in a new era of customer service by bringing together the 900 million regular monthly users of Messenger with the more than 15 million businesses that have an official brand page on Facebook.”
Issac notes that the “bot revival” — seen not only at Facebook, but also at Microsoft, Kik, and Telegram — is taking place at a time when people are growing tired of downloading and using individual apps, and much of time that Americans spend in mobile apps is focused on a handful of social networking and communication apps. So brands that want to interact with consumers are now turning to dominant messaging platforms to implement chatbots.
There’s no guarantee that everyone’s going to want to use chatbots for each transaction, whether they’re trying to find a pair of shoes or book a flight or order lunch for the office. But the trend may gain momentum as users warm up to the idea of Messenger becoming a “one-stop shop,” as Fast Company’s Cliff Kuang puts it, to read news, book flights, and otherwise avoid having to download and learn to use new apps.
Facebook, for its part, will enable developers to build bots for Messenger using a send and receive API that will let them see your identity and send and receive text, images, buttons, bubbles, and calls to action. Ken Yeung reports for VentureBeat that you’ll be able to control your chat experience by blocking messages or entire conversations, and despite some delays, chatbots will help you get responses in real time instead of waiting on hold with customer service for half an hour or trading emails with a company’s representative.
If you’re curious about the chatbots that are currently available on Messenger, you can already check out a list of the first 40 Facebook chatbots to be deployed. To start chatting with one, all you have to do is open Facebook Messenger and search for the name of the chatbot you want. Just tap the name of the bot when it appears in the results, and you can begin a conversation with the bot.