The evolution of chatbots and virtual agents

Tech

We see three trends guiding the next wave of chatbot innovation. Added together, these trends will generate more value for every company that adopts them.

Chatbots have taken off in popularity in the past five years as a way to boost the bottom line. Where did this trend start? To understand the technology’s capability, go back to its origins.

A Short History of Chatbots: 1966-2016

You may have started to hear the term “chatbot” a lot in the past few years, but the technology appeared more than 50 years ago. In the 1960s, experts at MIT created ELIZA. In contrast to the current emphasis on marketing, psychotherapy inspired the first chatbot. After ELIZA, other early chatbots were mainly developed based upon exploring the Turing test for artificial intelligence.

For companies, chatbots and commercial AI entered the mainstream in 2006 with the rise of IBM Watson. Created to compete on Jeopardy, Watson had to process questions fast and retrieve information quickly.

The capability to process natural language meant that chatbots could interact more naturally with human users.

In 2010 to 2015, the world’s largest technology giants launched interactive chatbots. In 2010, Apple launched Siri as a voice-based virtual agent or virtual assistant. In 2012, Google came to the party and launched Google Now. Google already had significant expertise in processing human language thanks to its search engine. In 2015, Amazon and Microsoft arrived in the chatbot field with their own products.

Amazon’s Alexa product changed the game because it offered a platform for other companies to use its technology.

In 2016, chatbots went mainstream with the rise of messenger bots. These chatbots were mainly focused on sales and marketing objectives. For example, a business would set up a chatbot on its Facebook page that would automatically engage visitors with a series of questions. In reality, many of these social media chatbots were running simple scripts. If a user attempted to go “off script” in some way, the chatbot had little capacity to respond dynamically.

What’s Next in Chatbot Technology?

We see three trends guiding the next wave of chatbot innovation. Added together, these trends will generate more value for every company that adopts them.

1. More Chatbots Will Focus on Employee Needs

The recent wave of chatbot innovation is focused on customer service and marketing. So far, employees haven’t benefited much from chatbots, but that’s starting to change with internally oriented chatbots. For example, Avatier’s Apollo has a chatbot that helps employees, managers, and other stakeholders with IT security administration. This means that employees no longer have to wait on hold to get password resets. Managers can set up new employees with passwords faster. AI is finally making a difference to employees, and this trend will continue to grow.

You can already see this trend in action when it comes to human resources. Leena AI, for instance, is a chatbot focused on human resources issues. This product is designed to handle repetitive inquiries such as tracking leave requests and expense reimbursements and providing backend tickets for tracking. By handling these issues, human resources chatbots will give managers more time to have a career and coaching conversation with their staff.

2. Demand for Chatbot Disclosure

Lack of transparency has hurt large technology companies such as Facebook and Apple. Heightened concerns about transparency will influence future bot developments. A November 2018 chatbot study by Nielsen Norman Group framed the issue in these terms: “Interaction bots were usually easily identifiable as bots, but customer-service bots were harder to recognize. Some businesses do not always disclose upfront to their customers that they are interacting with a bot. We believe that this is a mistake. Our study participants were pleased when the business was transparent about using a bot because they could calibrate both their expectations and their language.”

If you use chatbots and virtual agents at your company, manage expectations, so end users know if they’re dealing with a bot. In some cases, end users prefer to interact with a machine rather than a person. This makes sense intuitively. If you’re tired or upset, you may not have the energy for social interaction. However, “chatting” with a computer feels much easier.

3. Improving AI Flexibility

Early chatbots were simply mechanically used pre-programmed questions and answers. That approach meant there was pressure on the company to think through all the possible scenarios. The next generation of AI chatbots has a greater capacity to adapt to new information. This will require moving beyond the simple keyword and pattern recognition used in many chatbots today.

chatbots
The only way to take advantage of chatbots is to “get your hands dirty” and implement the technology.

Use These Two Steps to Bring Chatbots to Life in Your Organization

Studying chatbot technology trends is interesting. However, it won’t produce results in your company. The only way to take advantage of chatbots is to “get your hands dirty” and implement the technology. To get started, use the following steps.

1. Assess Your Current Challenges

Unless you have a budget dedicated to pure technology exploration, you’ll need to build a business case for chatbots. Identifying a major problem to solve is the best foundation on which to build your business case. For example, if your company has suffered multiple cybersecurity incidents recently, you may want to focus on a cybersecurity oriented chatbot.

2. Create a Shortlist of Chatbot Options

Developing your list of chatbot options may feel overwhelming, so we’ve simplified the options into two categories.

  • DIY: This is the route selected by multi-billion dollar technology companies and ambitious AI startups. If you have a strategic focus on chatbots at the core of your business, and you have deep pockets, consider building the technology in house.
  • Specialized chatbot: This is the fast, low-risk way to bring chatbots to your company. Consider using Apollo to speed up your IT security operations.

Mass Adoption of Chatbots Is Coming

Chatbots are becoming more affordable and powerful. You still have the opportunity to take advantage of the trend as an early adopter. Will you seize the advantage or fall behind your competitors?

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter, or Facebook. You can also comment on our MeWe page by joining the MeWe social network.

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