Your digital friends: the growth of chatbots and virtual assistants

As if it’s bad enough we’re head down on our devices these days, not talking to one another, next year, we’ll be talking to computers instead. Meet 2017’s next big thing: the virtual assistant.

This is the tech that answers our needs automatically and promptly with no human assistance. Such tools have been around for a while now, particularly from Google, with its uncanny ability to know where you are and what you need. Type in things like flight numbers, football fixtures or cities and you’ll see a customised search result at the top of the page, tailored to answer your question in real-time.

Indeed, chatbots are nothing new, fielding your queries to a point at which a human being can take over. They began as real people linked by buttons on websites that would open chat windows, before simple and quite crude software could start to identify common queries in typed text. For companies operating this type of tech, the appeal is that the simplest queries are handled quickly and without hassle by a computer, with your (reduced) staff picking up the more complicated customers.

Shake on it
Perhaps we don’t need humans after all.

Next year, we’ll see the next generation of this tech, where apps and websites will understand natural language and apply artificial intelligence to understand sentiment as well as answer your query. Cognitive learning means the computer can build some limited knowledge around its applied subject matter and start to form answers for itself.

This can change the marketing ability, and, critically, the capacity of a company drastically. 24×7 support becomes more cost effective and merely having someone man your online presence when your staff can’t definitely has its appeal. Interfaces to Facebook and Twitter mean that these chatbots can maintain your social media profile too.

I believe the real opportunity here is the chatbot services that developers could have access to. Last year, Amazon launched an API to Alexa, its voice recognition software, which means you and I could start to take advantage of the best in these heuristics without having to start from scratch. In other words, chatbot services can proliferate quickly and consistently.

Our homes may represent the real consumer growth area though. New devices from Google and Amazon plus interfaces such as Siri and Cortana mean we don’t actually have to hold our devices at all. Amazon’s Echo is arguably at the cutting edge here. Amazon haven’t tried to solve all the world’s problems at once; instead, in time, other suppliers build interfaces called “skills” that talk to their own products. This means you can activate your home heating or cooling system, play your favourite Spotify playlist, and so on; it can’t be long until we have the first Echo skill to remotely heat your charged EV in the driveway, surely?

Of course, this type of interface has its flaws. People ask their devices daft questions all the time to try and illicit similarly daft or unique responses, and some have figured out how to engineer infinite loops between voice assistant devices. There may be some security loop-holes, if you asked the right questions. But colleagues who are early adopters report a promising future, especially as most of these devices learn your voice and habits to provide better quality responses over time.


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