The unveiling of the Facebook chatbot platform has created a veritable maelstrom of activity in Silicon Valley.

Every day, a new article either bemoaning the digitization of communication or celebrating the simplicity of automation, weighs in on this phenomenon. Is 2016 the year of the chatbot? Undoubtedly. But will 2017 be? Will chatbots prove to be the Google of A.I.? Will they replace our current models of customer service? No!

Despite WIRED declaring that “Facebook believes messenger will anchor a post-app internet,” the much more modest (and realistic) assessment of bots is that they will exist harmoniously alongside apps.

Even better, they will offer a useful and frictionless way for brands without apps to interact via mobile.

An example of why we need chatbots

Take this account of a tech writer who wanted to order a beer at a baseball game:

Imagine I had sat down and found that there was a sticker on the back of the chair in front of me that said, “Want a beer? Download our app!” Sounds great! I’d unlock my phone, go to the App Store, search for the app, put in my password, wait for it to download, create an account, enter my credit card details, figure out where in the app I actually order from, figure out how to input how many beers I want and of what type, enter my seat number, and then finally my beer would be on its way.

But imagine the stadium one more time, except now, instead of spending millions to develop an app, the stadium had spent thousands to develop a simple, text-based bot. I’d sit down and see a similar sticker: “Want a beer? Chat with us!” with a chat code beside it. I’d unlock my phone, open my chat app, and scan the code. Instantly, I’d be chatting with the stadium bot, and it’d ask me how many beers I wanted: “1, 2, 3, or 4.” It’d ask me what type: “Bud, Coors, or Corona.” And then it’d ask me how I wanted to pay: Credit card already on file (**** 0345), or a new card.

It’s a truth too infrequently acknowledged that not everybody needs an app. And for those who don’t, chatbots provide a wonderful mobile alternative. They present unique opportunities for marketing, in terms of personalized content, calls-to-action, and a wealth of data about the customer. They automate many of the processes behind customer service — not replacing humans, but driving efficiency in the customer support workflow.

Why the A.I. is still shaky

There’s a danger here, though: Machine learning must be used correctly. Chatbots are still highly fallible, and should not be used to replace human interaction. When people want to talk to a human, they need a human.

Digg, the news aggregator, recently launched its Digg on Facebook Messenger feature and addressed wariness of the word “bot” by saying this:

The need we’re filling should not require artificially intelligent conversation. Discovering great articles and videos doesn’t have to involve full dialogue with a machine. Instead, it should require only minimal input or, at best, none at all. So instead of focusing upfront on natural language processing and conversational intelligence, we have decided to:

  • Address the specific use cases of a) passive habitual content discovery, and b) high quality content search
  • Leverage our deep and proprietary data (10 million RSS feeds, 200 million daily tweets, 7.5 million new articles ranked each day!) to find the best of the internet.
  • Keep it simple, and don’t pretend to be smarter than we are.

Yes, the need most bots are filling should not require an artificially intelligent conversation. If they are, they’re probably not doing it very well (yet). Rather, the best chatbots allow users to interact with their surroundings (like the baseball game example), act as refined search engines, or provide real-time updates.

Benjamin Goggin, associate editor at Digg said, “there’s an illusory rhetoric that gives the impression that people are using chatbots for human-like interactions. Realistically, people only use even Siri and Alexa for search, but by personifying them they’re implying there’s a human-like intelligence behind their technology.”

Chatbots’ niche in customer service

When it comes to customer service, chatbots are best used to relay simple updates.

Say there are no agents available, but you want to go to lunch. You can message the chatbot and ask how long it estimates the wait will be. The chatbot will give you an estimate, and then ask if you would like a push notification when you are second in line. You respond that yes, in fact you would, and when it comes, you happily go off to grab a burrito. Infinitely superior to elevator hold music.

What chatbots cannot be for customer service is the text version of interactive voice response (the options you get when you call sales and support lines). When customers want a human, they need one now. When they don’t want a human, they need the tools to self-serve — not to be pushed into interacting with a fake human. While bots may be the next browsers, and a great tool for customer service, if they are replacing agents, chances are you’ll end up with customers sending irate, all-caps messages to a machine that just cannot compute.


VentureBeat's mission is to be a digital town square for technical decision-makers to gain knowledge about transformative technology and transact. Our site delivers essential information on data technologies and strategies to guide you as you lead your organizations. We invite you to become a member of our community, to access:
  • up-to-date information on the subjects of interest to you
  • our newsletters
  • gated thought-leader content and discounted access to our prized events, such as Transform 2021: Learn More
  • networking features, and more
Become a member