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The robots are coming — to help run your life or sell you stuff — at an online texting service near you.
In coming months, users of Facebook's Messenger app, Microsoft's Skype and Canada's Kik can expect to find new automated assistants offering information and services at a variety of businesses. These messaging "chatbots" are basically software that can conduct human-like conversation and do simple jobs once reserved for people. Google and other companies are reportedly working on similar ideas.
"Bots are the new apps," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said last month. Microsoft has just created new programming tools for businesses to build bots that will interact with customers on Skype, the Microsoft-owned Internet voice, video and messaging service.
Facebook is widely expected to unveil similar tools for its Messenger chat service at the company's annual software conference starting Tuesday. It's already partnered with a few online retailers and transportation companies so consumers can use Messenger to check the status of a clothing purchase from online retailer Zulily, order car service from Uber or get a boarding pass from KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.
At those services, automated chatbots handle some interactions, with supervision from human operators. Similarly, Facebook has been testing a digital assistant called "M'' — sort of like Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana — that can answer questions or perform tasks like ordering flowers in response to commands on Messenger. It uses a combination of artificial intelligence and input from human overseers.
Another messaging service, Kik, which is popular among U.S. teenagers, opened a new "bot shop" last week. Kik users can talk to bots that will answer questions about the weather, show funny videos or help with online shopping. Slack, a messaging service used by businesses, has partnered with Taco Bell to introduce a "Taco Bot" that helps Slack users order ahead for meals at a local outlet.
Tech experts are particularly eager to see what Facebook does with Messenger, since its 900 million users make it the world's second biggest chat platform after WhatsApp, which claims 1 billion users. Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014.
Both are free to users and don't produce much revenue for Facebook. But if Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has given WhatsApp's co-founders leeway with their service, executives have signaled they are increasingly looking for ways to make money from Messenger.