What are chat bots?

The tech world is abuzz with “chat bots,” but many outside of the industry are scratching their head about what they are and why they should care.

Essentially, chat bots (or “chatbots”) are automated computer programs that simulate online conversations with real people.

For example, in a messaging app like Facebook Messenger or Kik, the program may know you’re interested in eating at a restaurant this coming weekend – based on words you’ve typed – and you might see a chat bot ask you if you feel like sushi and if the ‘bot could book a reservation for you at a local hotspot, when, and for how many?

Some forms of chat bots have been around for years, like Microsoft’s paperclip, Clippy, or in instances when you’ve typed a question in a company website’s troubleshooting section about a product you were having an issue with, and then you saw an answer relevant to your problem. You’re satisfied at the speed and accuracy of the response, and the company didn’t need a costly human employee to assist you.

Today’s chat bots are becoming more sophisticated, often applying artificial intelligence, machine learning, voice recognition (e.g. Apple’s Siri), location information and the ability to reach across other apps on your device (with your permission), such as adding a flight to your calendar. 

Heavy hitters like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple are doubling down on chat bots, along with many smaller start-ups. HP’s Print Bot can ask Facebook Messenger users if they’d like to print a document they just received. Speak into Skype about a wedding anniversary and you might be asked if you want flowers delivered. 

Cool? Yes. Scary? Perhaps. 

But it all comes down to making people feel like they’re talking to a human, and getting what they need, when and where they need it.

And it could be catching on: According to research firm Gartner, 33 percent of all customer service interactions will still need a human by 2017, but that number is down from 60 percent in 2014.

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