Why The First Wave of Chat Bots Are a Bit of a Mess

Mark Zuckerberg surveys all before him at Facebook f8. Image: Facebook

If you spent any amount of time online in the past few days, you’ll have noticed plenty of chatter about chat bots, tiny little computer programs that live inside messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger, Skype, or Slack that are designed to spit out useful bits of data like weather forecasts or the latest headlines using an interface—chat!—that requires little or no training to understand. Neat!

It’s a nice idea, maybe, but you know what’s the single most obvious thing to me in the days since Mark Zuckerberg took the stage in San Francisco to proclaim the beginning of the Chat Bot Era? Brands and developers are feverishly trying to figure out in real time, right before our very eyes, where this whole chat bot thing is going.

“There’s no question that bots are more suited for some kinds of interactions than others,” Sam Mandel, CEO of weather app Poncho, which released a weather bot for Facebook Messenger earlier this week, told Motherboard. “We think of it as really a conversation: When we built Poncho we wanted him to be your friend, and that’s why we think weather is just a great starting point in the sense that that’s a conversation that everyone has with their friends.”

Unlike my friends, however, Poncho doesn’t quite understand the nuances of the Attitude Era:

As Mandel explains it, Poncho decided to go all-in with a Facebook Messenger bot because people “have already voted with their time.” That is, since people already spend so much time inside messaging apps—nearly 75 percent of US iPhone owners regularly use messaging apps, according to mobile research firm App Annie, with even more impressive figures in countries like South Korea and China—that it would have been foolish for his company not to make a bot. “Our mission is to figure out how to present content on these interfaces,” he said.

CNN's chat bot on the desktop version of Facebook Messenger. Screenshot: Nicholas Deleon/Motherboard

Right now, there’s a debate among brands and developers to determine how “lifelike” they want these first generation bots to appear, experimenting with things like how long to display typing indicators and what language to use when “talking” to the human on the other side of the conversation.

“From the user’s point of view, how would you ask a question?” said CNN chief product officer Alex Wellen. “And what is the kind of response that gets you?”

For CNN, which also released a Facebook Messenger chat bot this week that provides summaries of the day’s top news, the best answer at this early stage is to find the right balance between the conversational informality of something like Microsoft’s teen wannabe Tay—OK, maybe not that informal—and the kind of authoritative voice you’d likely expect from a journalistic outfit.

“It’s really important that we’re—I guess the best word would be that we’re relevant and that we’re precise and crisp and accurate with the news and to get you what you’re looking for,” he said. “Stickers and nice turns-of-phrase are good for certain brands, and [that may not be] beyond CNN because we have a certain voice and a way we tell stories.”

Another company that hangs its hat on storytelling is Disney, which is now worth more than $160 billion in large part thanks to the strength of franchises like Frozen and Star Wars (OK, George Lucas came up with that one, but still). Eyal Pfeifel, the co-founder and CTO of Imperson, a software company that develops conversational artificial intelligence, was tapped by Disney to create on-brand chat bots for characters like Miss Piggy and Doc Brown from Back to the Future.

Miss Piggy chat bot on the desktop version of Facebook Messenger. Screenshot: Nicholas Deleon/Messenger

“It’s not just that people are [using messaging apps], but they like this interface, and they use it quite a lot,” said Pfeifel, explaining why big companies like Disney are so eager to dive into the deep end of the chat bot pool. The thinking goes, according to Pfeifel, if you’re a brand or developer trying to sell flowers, or convince folks to tune into a sitcom about a bunch of talking puppets, it only makes sense to go where the people are. “You need to be there, but in a way that is native to messaging.”

That brands and developers are still scratching their heads to figure out what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to chat bots may not be altogether surprising. After all, messaging as a computing interface is still brand new to anyone who didn’t grow up inside IRC chat rooms downloading MP3s and DivX files. (Cough.)

“Originally we had DOS prompts,” said Pfeifel, walking through a history of computing interfaces, “then we suddenly has the graphical user interface, touchscreens for smartphones, and now we have also the messaging interface. It’s a new type of interface and over time people will realize what it is good for and what it does best.”

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