Toronto

As app fatigue sets in, Toronto engineers move on to chatbots

A Toronto startup is hosting a hackathon to create human-like chatbots, which could change the way people access technology.

Prepare for the chatbot invasion

Engineers will gather at Toronto startup Connected Lab's offices to create the human-like chatbots. (Connected Lab)

It's almost the weekend, so Damian McCabe is making plans.

"I want to go to Niagara," announces McCabe.

"No worries, Damian," replies his chatbot. "I've booked your hotel and train ticket. You're off to the races!"

That hypothetical Friday afternoon conversation will happen in the near future, said McCabe. Say the name of a desired destination to a chatbot on a smartphone or device, and it can immediately begin booking reservations or suggesting plans.

McCabe not only believes intelligent chatbots are coming, he's helping create them.

He's a vice president of engineering at the Toronto startup Connected Lab, and is organizing a chatbot hackathon in his company's offices on the weekend of June 3. The hackathon is a competition among engineers and designers to create the most human-like chatbot possible in 24 hours.

"We're building interfaces where people can have conversations with computers using natural language to ask it things," McCabe explained. "And it understands what's being said and responds back."

Chat with a chatbot

A chatbot is a computer program that can communicate with a person, like a person. It typically uses data from the internet as its brain.

Chatbots are all the rage in consumer technology today, especially since Facebook announced last month it would use chatbots in its Messenger communication app.

Up until this point, chatbots have been primarily used for customer service — a window will pop up in the righthand corner of a webpage asking if you need help — or as search assistants, like Apple's Siri.

But McCabe is thinking beyond those. He wants chatbots to be conversational, so much so he doesn't really use the word "chatbot" because he says that name is too associated with the current technology's shortcomings.

Instead, he calls it a conversational interface. 

Take his Niagara conversation. In that example, the conservational interface responds to a vague directive by performing specific tasks, but it also uses expressions like "no worries" and "off to the races," which most technology would likely interpret literally as not being worried or travelling to a race of some kind.

"It should feel natural: when you're using technology and you don't feel the barrier between the technology in front of you and the world around you," McCabe explained. 

What makes a good chatbot?

IBM's Watson will power the chatbots created at the Toronto chatbot hackathon in early June. (IBM)
At the end of Connected Lab's hackathon, a panel of judges will decide which team of engineers has built the best one.

In this instance, McCabe said "best" is equal to "most human" — basically he's looking for a less-evil HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

To test the chatbots, McCabe puts them through the Turing Test: he asks it a question, perhaps using a conversational turn-of-phrase or slang, and sees how human the response is. Even if the chatbot doesn't understand, it will pass the Turing Test by saying something like "I don't get it" instead of the more computer-like "question does not compute."

An integral component of the hackathon is IBM's Watson, which will be the platform for the chatbots at the hackathon. It will be the first event in Canada to use IBM's Watson cognitive software.

Watson is the technology that won at Jeopardy in 2011 by taking data from all corners of the internet and focusing it to answer questions. For chatbots, Watson will be doing something similar: taking unstructured data from anywhere online and combining it to form intelligent conversation.

Chatbots, the new apps?

An intelligent chatbot should be able minimize the use of apps and webpages — for example, to flip through Instagram, Amazon and CBC to find information and perform tasks, all at the same time.

The thinking is, why open and close a bunch of different apps when you can get the same information by asking a question to your smartphone's chatbot?

"It changes the way people use technology," said McCabe. "I think we're at a tipping point. People are fatigued by downloading hundreds of mobile apps. You're not browsing like you currently do, piling up a thousand tabs."

McCabe said a few standalone apps will still be of use to people, but scrolling through all the app icons on your screen creates a friction between the user and the technology — something he wants to eliminate.

"You should just be able to jump into it like you would jump into a conversation, not search through all these apps."

About the Author

Joshua Errett

Senior Producer, Features

Joshua Errett has been a reporter, editor and digital manager in Toronto since the early 2000s. He has been described as "a tornado of innovation, diligence and authenticity." Got a story idea? joshua.errett@cbc.ca

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