For most of us, when we’re hungry, we turn to the most famous company in tech. It’s not Tesla, it’s not Facebook or Apple, and it’s not even Microsoft. It’s the one that provides immediate answers and, for nearly the past two decades, has worked famously.
That’s right: Google serves up everything we need to know about restaurants around us — ratings, location-based searches for specific food choices, and a quick map. You tap “pizza” and the results show up on your phone, tablet, or laptop.
There’s only one problem. Google is now the old-school approach, a search-and-response tool without a dialogue (unless you use Google Now). When you search for “italian” you’ll see a few options and a map, but the search ends there. You have to click a few extra options to limit your search criteria, drill into the listings, and check if there will be rain in the forecast when you finally head out for dinner.
Bing search is the same way — it’s not meant to be interactive when you do a quick search.
Now, a new iPhone app — currently in a private trial — promises to change that.
Ozlo is not quite ready to tackle any problem in life, but it’s highly extensible. I used one for a few days on a business trip and found it did an excellent job of finding places to eat, giving me quick weather reports, and showing me a few news headlines. The developers tell me the bot can be instructed to learn about other topics — say, sporting events or upcoming tech conferences.
It’s brilliant because it’s 100 percent artificial intelligence with no human assistance, yet it feels like a living entity. That seems to be intentional. The icon for Ozlo looks like a Muppet. To ask a question, you click the blue furry creature, which helps to remove some of the stale chat mechanics. It doesn’t feel robotic. Like most A.I.-powered chatbots, it uses buttons you click with predetermined questions that let you find food establishments nearby or in the next town over, or places that serve ice cream.
I searched for my favorite food (that would be cheese curds). Surprisingly, Ozlo uncovered three restaurants in my area that serve this Midwest delicacy. I had no idea. One of them is a sports bar that has an outdoor dining area, within a few miles of my house.
When you find a place to eat, Ozlo shows ratings, a map, and can then tell you the weather for later today. It’s intuitive and fast, even if it’s still in development. Amazingly, it worked better than a Google search for finding my favorite menu items at local eateries.
The app can search through about one million restaurants today. It can pick through 300,000 online menus, which is a pretty big accomplishment on its own. It can dig for vegan choices, help people with food allergies, and find gluten-free products.
The developers told me the chatbot doesn’t ever route you to a human agent, even when there are times when it seems like it has. It will also make mistakes. When I typed “headlines” to see the latest news reports (which is a bit of an ancillary feature), the bot thought I was looking for a restaurant with that name. Once I did find some news, I was able to drill down into the tech news with a tap.
Why use a chatbot for this at all? Google may be easy, but this is even easier.
There’s a bit of a perfect storm when it comes to chatbots. We don’t always know what we want, so a bot can feed information to us and start an ongoing dialogue. The developers say Ozlo can learn our preferences. (It already knows our location and can send notifications.) It’s cool that Ozlo can tell you the news and weather when you search for food. I even like that it runs as its own app, because my Facebook Messenger and Kik apps are way too cluttered right now with a mix of bots and humans. Ozlo works because it has the right balance of help and intelligence.
I’m excited to see what the Ozlo team does with the app, what kind of intelligence they add to it next, and if other users warm up to it as quickly. For now, it’s my favorite chatbot.