Once upon a time, a small but growing geeky community found a way to instantly communicate with each other using computers. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and later iterations like ICQ, were the baby steps towards today’s social media platforms, connecting like-minded people into a stream of consciousness. It didn’t take long before some smart developer types coded some response bots into this chat. IRC chat bots provided an interface for finding out answers without a human needing to be at the other end.


All type of bots

Today, some social media platforms have embraced bots more than others. Slack’s library of bots is extensive, ranging from witty responses to useful business enablers that highlight information or action requests. Twitter’s bots tend to fall more into the humor category or the downright annoying auto follow/unfollow bots. At the useful end of the scale is Dear Assistant, which is a search-style bot for answering your questions. My personal favorite though is the bot that tweets in real-time from different passengers & crew on the anniversary of the Titanic voyage each year.


You can see the difference between bots for automating the dissemination of information, bots that provide a reactive response to input, and bots that connect to and use another service before delivering their response. Our acceptance of this method of interaction and communication is growing, though I wouldn’t say it’s totally commonplace in the consumer market just yet. People still tend to prefer to chat (even online) with other people instead of bots, when looking for an answer to a problem that they can’t already find with a web search.


Along comes Voice

The next step in this evolution was voice controlled bots as speech recognition technology improved and became commonplace. Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Google Home … all provide that ‘speak to me’ style bot interaction in an affordable wrapper. It doesn’t feel like justice to call these ‘assistants’ a bot though, even with an underlying ‘accept command and respond’ service. Today’s voice controlled assistants must meld the complexity of speech recognition with phrase analysis, to deliver a quality answer to a question that could be phrased many different ways. Adoption of voice control varies, with some people totally hooked on speaking commands and requests into their devices, while some reserving it for moments of fun and beat-boxing.


If bots have been around for so long, why are they only becoming more mainstream now?


I think bots are an example of a technology that was before it’s time. It took more widespread adoption and acceptance of social media before we reached the critical mass where enough people were on those platforms to make bots worth looking at. Social media also provided an easy input channel to business and brands, who now have a problem that bots can solve – the automation of inquiries without the cost of human head count 24 x 7. We’ve also created a problem because of the large amount of cost-effective Cloud services. It’s not uncommon for people to use different Internet based services for different tasks, leading to a need for connectivity. Systems like If This Then That and Microsoft Flow are helping to solve that problem. Bots also help connect our services to bring notifications or input points into a more centralized location, so we don’t have to bounce around as much with information siloed in individual services. That’s important in a time-poor, information overwhelmed society.


The rise of the bots reminds me of the acceptance of instant messaging and presence awareness. Back in the old days, Lotus Sametime had the capability to show if someone was online from within an email and provide instant individual and group messaging. While it was an Enterprise tool (no Sametime as a Service, free or subscription based), we still had a hard time in the late 90s convincing people of the business benefit. Surely they’ll just all gossip with each other and not get any work done? You have less of a challenge these days convincing a business about Skype or Skype for Business when portions of the workforce (especially the younger employees) have Facebook, Slack and Twitter as part of their lives.  In a world where some prefer text-based chat to phone calls, instant messaging in the workplace is not that big of an adoption leap. I think bots now have a similar, easier path to adoption, though they still have a way to go.


Why is this important?

Over the next few weeks I’m going to delve more into this emerging technology, along with machine learning and artificial intelligence. I’m interested to hear if you think it’s all hype, or if we need to embrace as the next big, life changing thing. As much of a geek as I am, I’ve seen concepts fail when they are a technology looking for a problem to solve, rather than the other way around. If bots, AI and machine learning are the future, what will that look like for us as consumers and as IT Professionals?