What's a chatbot and why should I care?

How chatbots will change your online experience.
Chatbots have been around for a long time, but what characterizes this current wave is that they're designed to live in messaging apps.

Chatbots are suddenly everywhere. But what exactly are they? Should we even care? The short answer is yes. And here's what you need to know.

Chatbots go back several decades to ELIZA, an early chatbot from the 1960s, that was designed to mimic a text-based conversation with a psychotherapist. You can still find versions of it online.
An example of what it's like to talk to ELIZA, the 1960s psychiatric chatbot.

A chatbot is a bit of software that's designed to carry on a natural language conversation with a human. But even though they've been around for a long time, it seems like all of a sudden, chatter about chatbots is everywhere.

At its Developers' Conference this past week, Facebook announced its new "Chatbots for Messenger" platform. But that's not the only reason chatbots have been in the news lately. Microsoft wants to bring chatbots to 'conversational platforms' like Skype and Slack. Waterloo-based Kik launched its Bot Shop recently. It already has chatbots from the likes of Funny or Die, and retailer H&M.

So far, the wildly successful messaging app, WhatsApp, doesn't allow chatbots. But given that it's owned by FB, that might not last long. Google is rumoured to be working on chatbots for messaging too.

What characterizes this wave of chatbots is that they're designed to live in messaging apps, where people are now spending so much time. Fueled by artificial intelligence, they do little tasks that you once might have used an app, or a web search, or a human to do. So, if you're using Facebook's messenger app, you could ask for this afternoon's weather, or reserve a table for dinner. You could get the latest news, or some customer support. It's supposed to be a seamless interaction that's like exchanging quick messages with another person, though as we'll see, things are still kind of rough around the edges.

Cliff Kuang (Fast Company)
Even with the kinks worked out, why would you want to use them? Or maybe more to the point, why do tech companies want to get you to use them? Cliff Kuang is Director of Product Innovation at Fast Company and has written about the chatbot boom. He explains the push for chatbots, and what it takes to get the design right.


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