Chatbots: The next big thing?

Anyone who’s conversed with Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana has made friends with a chatbot. A chatbot is a form of artificial intelligence that responds in a conversational manner, in print or verbally, to questions or requests from people: “Where’s the nearest McDonald’s?” or “Call Doug.”

But, for chatbot developers, that’s baby talk. Chatbots have the power to personalize a business, give customers a more intimate experience and build consumer loyalty by giving a phone menu or website store a pleasant, responsive, human personality. They may eventually take the place of customer-service people, store clerks and even psychotherapists as computer speeds and artificial intelligence evolve.

Investors are betting on it. Ten representative US chatbot developers already have raised more than $100 million in venture capital, including $25 million for Babylon Health, which helps people self-diagnose illnesses and refers them to doctors. Ozlo, which finds restaurants, has raised $14 million. Amy Chatbot, which schedules meetings, has snagged more than $34 million. 

Before long, developers predict, when you order pants online, a smiling avatar will appear on-screen and say, “We have a shirt on sale that would go really well with those pants. May I show it to you?” In a bookstore, a friendly avatar at the checkout kiosk might say, “Thank you for shopping with us. I see you chose a Stephen King novel. Please come back next week when we’ll have his new book for you.”

Chatbots also are invading professions. “Betty” is an office manager that greets guests, recognizes her human co-workers, tracks their hours, and keeps an eye on the office supplies. “Mya,” from employment firm FirstJob, gets in touch with applicants to let them know if they’re in the running. “Ellie” is a budding psychotherapist that reads your body language through a camera. Her on-screen avatar responds not only verbally but also with a nod, smile or other appropriate gesture. Many people report being more forthcoming with an artificial therapist rather than telling their embarrassing secrets to a fellow human.

You also can buy and download chatbot buddies to chitchat with or confide problems to.

TRENDPOST: Skeptics urge caution. They warn that the hype enveloping chatbots still outstrips their capacities so far. However, as computers’ growing ability to learn and store information enable ever-more sophisticated versions of artificial intelligence, chatbots will be fixtures in our lives by 2020. 



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