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What Are Chatbots? And Why Does Big Tech Love Them So Much?

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Facebook chief and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg at the social network's annual developers gathering unveils the option of building chat bots that let software have one-on-one natural language exchanges with people in San Francisco on April 12, 2016. Glenn CHAPMAN / AFP/Getty Images

Chatbots! They're all the rage: Kik has them, Facebook wants them, and it seems like every computer coder wants to make them. But what are they? And why is every company suddenly hot on this new A.I. trend?

Bots are simple artificial intelligence systems that you interact with via text. Those interactions can be straightforward, like asking a bot to give you a weather report, or more complex, like having one troubleshoot a problem with your internet service.

Why are we suddenly seeing so many bots?

A lot of factors have come together to make this explosion of bots possible. One of them is the fact that people are just plain tired of downloading apps.

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"They're thinking, I don't want to download yet another app, especially if it doesn't need to be an app," said Matthew Hartman, head of seed investment at Betaworks, the startup studio that's behind giphy and bit.ly. The company's new Botcamp program aims to find small, cool bots and bring them into the mainstream.

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"On the other hand," he said, "people have moved into messenger apps — they're living in chat. So you could have an app... or you could have a service that lives inside an app they already have."

It's a bit like sneaking in the back door, but it works — people are engaging with the bots, and there sure isn't any shortage of messaging apps to choose from.

"We are seeing the rise of lots of useful 'conversational canvases,' SMS/txt, Skype IM, WeChat, Slack, Line, Telegram, Twitter, etc," said Peter Lee, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research, in an email. Lee was recently appointed to President Obama's Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity.

"So now the question is: Do we have enough AI technology, web search, and cloud power to connect people, via these canvases, to all the things they want to do?" Lee said. "Based on the incredible advances in natural language processing, machine learning, and AI services, we are betting that the answer is yes."

What happened to make bots possible all of a sudden?

Chat bots have existed for a good while — at least since ELIZA, an early bot that attempted to psychoanalyze people, was created in the '60s. But the last few years have seen an explosion of applications that make people interact with bots as though they’re talking to another person.

"I think we are still in the early stages of natural language processing," said Mike Roberts, head of Messenger at Kik, in an email. Kik is one of the mobile chat apps that started the trend now being pursued by WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and others. "As we saw what the interface could do, we shifted our attention to bots."

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"At Microsoft Research, we’ve spent decades working on NLP," said Lee. "We are learning a lot about conversations between people and AIs. In China, our XiaoIce chatbot today has millions of followers who have conversations that average 23 'turns' — that is, chat sessions that go back and forth between the user and XiaoIce 23 times. We are discerning topic, sentiment, task completions, etc."

It isn't just the science behind the bots that is evolving — it's easier than ever to make one, said Hartman.

"There's this focus around it, so there are all these tools getting developed for all levels of skill," he explained. "The other driver is the platforms opening up, which means you get a much bigger audience."

"It’s more of a cultural shift," said Roberts. "Users are now so used to chatting with their friends via SMS and messengers that they feel comfortable with that same interface delivering an app experience."

So when will bots take over the world?

Bots are good at performing simple tasks, like giving you the weather or ordering a pizza. But does that mean weather forecasters and whoever answers the phone at the pizza place will soon be obsolete?

"Bots make people's lives easier, but are not designed to replace people," said Roberts. "If you're at a baseball stadium in your seat and want food, you'd have to either leave your seat or yell at one of the vendors if they're near your section by chance."

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"If the stadium had a bot, you could just chat with that bot inside the Kik app to request what you'd like and pay for it as well without ever having to risk leaving your seat — the vendor sees that you've ordered and paid for your food, at which point he or she will deliver."

So maybe everyone can keep their jobs.

"People don't even always know they're interacting with bots," Hartman said. "The whole thing only works when it's just so easy that you don't even think about the fact that it's a bot."

Read More: Why You Might Soon Text Robots as Often as Your Friends

But he pointed out that bots are currently only capable of elementary tasks that don't require any kind of lateral thinking or complex interactions with other services. A bot might be able to process your credit card faster than a human, but humans can still do things bots can't even comprehend. That's why many bot platforms have people standing by waiting to take over.

What's next for bots?

"We are understanding how to 'package up' some of the key NLP and AI tech so that even non-programmers might be able to create simple but useful chatbots (and experts can create super chatbots)," wrote Lee.

That tallies with Hartman's suggestion, that the tools and platforms for creating and hosting bots are so widespread and easy to use that you may be making your own bots within a year or two. After all, you make filters for your email, and change settings on your Facebook account, right?

"It is still very early days for chatbots and AI," Lee said. "There’s a lot for us to learn about how to harness the technology and apply it, but we’re pretty excited about the possibilities."