In theory, chatbots were going to transform the realm of customer service. Companies wouldn’t need to hire dozens of costly service reps in order to handle customer issues; and customers would have the ability to chat with an automated helper whenever the need arose.
By early 2017, however, there were signs that chatbots may have been pushed to market too quickly. For example, The Information described testing in which Facebook Messenger bots only fulfilled “about 30 percent of requests with human agents” during testing. Facebook, one of the first major companies to push chatbots as a mainstream concept, nonetheless decided to double down on the technology, introducing updates such as social-sharing options and APIs for attachment uploads.
By mid-2017, other tech giants had entered the chatbot fray. Microsoft’s Cognitive Services page included Bot Builder SDKs with libraries, tools, and samples. Google had API.AI, which promised developers the ability to “use machine learning to understand what users are saying.” Some brands began introducing automated messaging into their customer interactions, often in a very limited fashion.
But chatbots aren’t an example of “general” artificial intelligence, in which a machine can “think” with the suppleness of a human being; rather, they follow a (sometimes elaborate) script. As a result, querying the software the “wrong way” can result in a non-answer, which can prove frustrating to everyday users who aren’t fully aware of chatbots’ inherent limitations.
In addition to being clunky, chatbots are accused of being slower than “regular” apps for certain functions. Why spend time yelling at a bot to get an accurate weather forecast when you can access the same information with a single tap? While that doesn’t preclude bots’ usefulness in customer-service scenarios, it does narrow the technology’s overall utility.
In light of all that, it’s fair to question whether, as 2018 begins, chatbots will remain a going concern for companies and developers, or if the technology will be cast aside except for certain customer service scenarios. With Messenger reportedly “slimming down” at some point this year (albeit in ways as yet unannounced), it’s even worth asking if Facebook is as enthused about bots as it was a couple years ago.