Technology & Science

Bots will be 'huge game-changer' in online interaction, expert says

Online "bot" technology unveiled by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg represents the next step forward in how people interact with businesses, goods and services, according to one expert. But will it also make you worry about your privacy?

New technology will monitor your conversations, offering to help with purchases and other tasks

Online 'bots' that monitor your conversations — offering to help with purchases and other tasks once mentioned — will be slowly added to Facebook in the coming months, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

Say you want to order a pizza. Ten years ago, you'd probably have gone to a website. These days, you'd probably use an app. Soon, you'll be messaging your friend online, mention you could really go for a pizza, and, without you searching or clicking on an app, your device will ask you if you want to order one — and will even suggest some options. 

That, experts say, is the future. That's what so-called "bots" are all about.

"No one wants to have to install a new app for every service or business that they want to interact with," said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the company's annual developer conference.

"So we think there's got to be a better way to do this. We think that you should just be able to message your business in the same way you would message a friend."

Zuckerberg announced Facebook's chat app, Messenger, is getting an upgrade. Now, developers will be able to build bots into the Messenger platform. 

"And it's a simple platform," Zuckerberg said. "It's powered by artificial intelligence so you can build natural language services to communicate directly with people." 

These bots will scan your conversations, looking for keywords, ready to spring into action, enabling you to order things directly from businesses without leaving the app.

"Now if you want to send flowers," Zuckerberg said at the Messenger demonstration, "you don't have to install a new app, or enter your credit card again, you just send a message."

Rush to develop

The new technology looks to be a "huge game-changer in terms of how people interact with businesses, goods and services and even with their friends online," says Karen North, who teaches digital media at the University of Southern California. Eventually, she says, bots may replace most apps.

"In the iPhone world it would almost be like having Siri listen to you all the time and then jump into your conversation and ask you 'What else can I do to facilitate your conversation?'" says North. 

[People] will trade our privacy in exchange for reducing our work.— Karen North, University of Southern California

The concept of computers scanning your communication for orders isn't new. When you call customer service, most of the time you're talking to a "chat bot" until you get beyond its ability to engage with you.

And Facebook isn't the first company to use bots. Kik, the messenger service widely used by youths, recently launched its own bot platform. 

But what makes Facebook's stand out is the size. Zuckerberg said Facebook's two main messaging apps, Messenger and WhatsApp, account for 60 billion messages a day.

"There's going to be a huge rush — huge — to find developers who will build aps or bots directly for chat, because the assumption is that because so many use their mobile devices to communicate, that everybody's going to want to be in the game of having their business searchable through this kind of interaction," North says.

Still, the idea of a bot listening in on your chats with friends might seem a little creepy. But Google and Facebook already do that now to sell you things you've searched or emailed about. And most users, North says, seem okay with it.

"Human beings these days are notorious for trading privacy for ease, for things being cheaper," North says.

"We will trade our privacy in exchange for reducing our work." 

There's no set date for when bots will be active on Messenger. Facebook will be slowly accepting bots that will launch over the coming months.

About the Author

Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.

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