If you work in tech and haven’t yet heard about chat bots, you can consider yourself in the minority. These AI-powered, human-facing bots are taking on a growing number of roles, from answering questions on a smartphone to providing customer support for big business, and their rise has only just started.
By the close of last year, billions of messages were being exchanged between users and chat bots on platforms like Kik and Facebook — and that’s an impressive level of engagement considering it’s been less than 12 months since developers were given access to these tools.
It’s early days of course — bot makers are still experimenting with their code, while users are still getting used to the capabilities of these bots — but even at this nascent stage there are signs of growth. So how might that play out over 2017 and beyond?
Chat Bots and the Internet of Things
Like chat bots, the Internet of Things (IoT) is a segment of the technology market that hasn’t been around very long, but it turns out these two innovations complement each other rather well.
One of the most obvious examples are the chat bots built into smart home speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, but AI-powered bots can prove useful in all kinds of internet-connected devices around the home, especially those that don’t have a screen or a traditional interface.
And it’s not just about a series of questions and answers between you and your smart kettle. In 2017, 2018, and beyond, bots will come to know us more personally, which means a lot of the tasks these IoT devices carry out can be done automatically.
“If you want to learn how to set up your thermostat based on the user, based on what is going on in the house, you cannot have generic codes for that,” Craft.ai CTO Cloderic Mars told us at Web Summit’16. “You need to have a personalized rule and the user will not edit that.”
In other words your chat bot won’t just help you get your Nest or Philips Hue lights set up – it’ll run these devices for you as well, once it knows what you like.
By 2018, six billion connected things will be requesting support.
It means a much easier life for users, who don’t have to read through pages of an instruction manual or take wild guesses to get their smart TVs or smart smoke alarms up and running. They can simply use natural language to tell their devices what they want to do and what settings to apply and the bots take care of the rest.
With more than 20 billion IoT devices expected to be online by 2020, we’re going to need an army of chat bots to manage them all.
Chat bots and marketing
One-to-one marketing and business interactions is another area where we’ve seen chat bots start to make a difference, and 2017 and 2018 will see more of the same.
Forrester analysts are among those who see chat bots making big in-roads in marketing over the next couple of years, covering everything from buying last-minute birthday and anniversary presents to pushing products through Amazon Alexa and other similar services. A chat bot recommendation could replace a banner ad in many cases.
Users continue to move away from the traditional desktop browser interface and chat bots are going to be important guides for exploring these new territories.
“I think in the near future, we will have chat bots everywhere in our lives for personal assistance, client support, travel bookings, everywhere,” Julien Blancher, co-founder at Recast.ai, told us at Web Summit’16 . “But it won’t be “one chatbot to rule them all”, but rather one chatbot per precise use case.”
“We already know Siri, but what we want from Siri is a bit more of intelligence, of knowing one’s habits, preferences and hobbies,” he added. “We’ll really evolve towards that. For example booking a night with Airbnb, I want my Siri to do that.”
By 2020, autonomous software agents outside of human control will participate in five percent of all economic transactions.
Industry analysts say chat bots could be generating revenues of several hundred million dollars a year by the time we get to 2022, and of course bots don’t need to be paid or fed or given office space to work in – they will happily get on with the job of renting out rooms on Airbnb, or making recommendations from the new Tommy Hilfiger line, without any extra input from their human creators.
Advertising is set to become even more personal and personalized on mobile, and chat bots are set to be at the forefront.
The near future of chat bots
Gartner says chat bots will become more and more influential over the next few years, with “smart agents” facilitating 40 percent of mobile interactions by 2020, and 20 percent of business content authored by machines.
We only need to take a look at where chat bots are today to see how they’ll grow in 2017 and beyond: in the areas of customer support, acting as personal assistants on our phones, controlling the Internet of Things, and giving users and businesses and marketers new ways to interact with each other.
Along the way our bots will become more intelligent and more human-like too, better able to remember past conversations, and offering a more natural interface.
As Alex Cheung, founder and CEO at Kami.ai, said in an interview at Web Summit 2016: “We expect more natural, more well spoken [bots]. I mean the future bot should understand individuals better by having a comprehensive knowledge including user character, preferences and conversational context.”
“And it [will have] the knowledge to give a more personalized response,” he adds. “This helps to build up the trust among humans and machines.”
Chat bots will become smarter, the natural language processing they use will become faster, and for users a lot of processes should become easier — whether that’s getting a smart thermostat to come on at the right time or trying to get your home internet fixed.
With tens of thousands of developers getting started with bots in 2016, 2017 should see more of the fruits of their labors — if last year was businesses and coders getting their chat bots to learn how to crawl, then this year and next we’ll be seeing them start to stand on their own two feet.