Shared channels that allow two businesses to share a workspace in Slack was made available for the first time Tuesday, bringing businesses that collaborate closer together — but that could just be the start. In an interview with VentureBeat, Slack VP of product April Underwood said shared channels could be a precursor to a day in the future when bots from one business interact with bots from another business.
“I think there’s definitely potential for that. I think if you start with humans being able to interact with humans in a shared channel, great,” Underwood said. “Step two: Humans interacting with software, and I’ve always thought, I think there are some interesting opportunities with how software can interact with software.”
“How can that actually automate processes further?” she asked. “You’ve got the people and the apps there, so I think the only limit would just be how people put the technology to use, so I think we’ll see it.”
Underwood spoke to VentureBeat at Frontiers, the company’s first gathering of developers and Slack devotees. As head of product at Slack since June 2015, Underwood led the launch of the Slack platform for bots in December of the same year and continues to oversee its development.
Beyond the efficiencies that could be gained from bots speaking to each other in a business setting, one stat stands out as a clear indicator of the value of a business sharing a workspace with a partner (or vendor, or contractor, or freelancer): Two-thirds of all Slack teams utilize guest access, product lead Paul Rosania told VentureBeat in an interview earlier this week.
The desire for a workspace that stretches across teams and businesses does not seem to be lost on Slack’s competitors, who someday too could bring bot-to-bot communication to their chat apps. Earlier this year, Workplace by Facebook began to allow businesses to form groups together. On Monday, Microsoft Teams got guest access and committed to taking more steps to connect businesses.
From overblown claims of experimental Facebook AI creating its own language to video of two Google Homes talking going viral — as well as this conversation between voice-powered assistants that got sexual pretty quick — the idea of bots speaking to each other has been creeping people out for years.
Get past the freak-out, though, and it’s easy to see how bots in the workplace could be really useful. Such bots could do things like schedule meetings, exchange notes taken during conversations, or notify both companies when mutually agreed-upon goals are met or missed. If connected to AI models, bots could even deliver insights or AI-powered predictions that combine datasets from multiple organizations working together.
Whenever and however Slack chooses to support the development of business bots that speak to each other, it won’t be alone. Bot-to-bot communication has been part of the imagination of developers making bots and the wider public for some time now.
For its first-ever developer conference last fall, IBM Watson held a competition for developers to create AI assistants and bots that do a good job communicating with other bots. IBM developer evangelist Zachary Walchuk told VentureBeat at the time the competition was held just to give the creators of bots some fun ways to get creative about the way they construct them.
In April, bot platform and longtime player in the conversational space Gupshup launched bot-to-bot communication platform InterBot for developers to experiment with connecting their bot to converse with a series of other bots.
At that time, in an exclusive interview with VentureBeat, CEO Beerud Sheth called the launch of InterBot “the start of a different phase of the bot phenomena.”
“The InterBot system will kind of become like a collective mind, think about Borg in Star Trek,” he said. “Today what people do is they build custom APIs and they build for their own business, but it ignores the fact that every other business will also build a bot and will have to deal with other bots.”
Whereas an online shopper might be able to go two to three pages into a web search, a consumer bot could visit 1,000 stores on your behalf to do a price check or find the right item. The same principle applied to business could shake up things like supply chains or procurement of products or services, Sheth said.