Facebook announced this week at its F8 Developer Conference that developers can now build AI (artificial intelligence) chat bots into Facebook Messenger. In theory, these Facebook Messenger bots will allow you to interact with a company or service over Facebook Messenger in natural language as if you’re conversing with a human being. The concept sounds promising, but there are also some potential pitfalls to consider.
What is a Messenger Bot?
Let’s start by talking a little about what these chat bots are. The bot is an AI program designed to respond and interact with you like a live customer service agent would. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg used the example of the 1-800-Flowers Messenger Bot to assist with ordering flowers as opposed to calling and dealing with someone over the phone.
No More Apps
I decided to check out the Messenger Bot capabilities by engaging in a conversation with the Hi Poncho bot—a bot that represents the Poncho: Wake Up Weather app. I’ve never actually used (or heard of, frankly) the Poncho app and I did not need to install it to interact with the Hi Poncho bot.
One of the apparent advantages of these Messenger bots is exactly that—you don’t have to install the app. For companies and services I engage with frequently, I think the app is still the better way to go, but there have been many times that I have installed an app for a store or service just so I could do one thing that I only needed in the moment. A Messenger bot would be a much better solution in that situation so I don’t have to waste time and bandwidth downloading an app I don’t even want, just so I can get an answer to one question and then delete the app again.
No More Calling Customer Service
I know we still call them phones or smartphones, but at this point my iPhone is much more a personal computing and media device that happens to also be able to make calls. Voice calling is one of the least used features of my smartphone, and one with the least enjoyable experience. Voice calls in general suck, but voice calls to deal with customer service are the worst.
With a Messenger bot, you’re still dealing with customer service—even if it is an AI construct—so it might still be frustrating. At the very least, though, you should be able to avoid getting hung up on, bounced to five different agents, and the inevitable lack of communication over a crappy voice connection.
Saying Things the “Right” Way
You will still have some communication problems, though—at least initially. The Messenger bot technology and the intelligence of the AI behind it should improve over time, but right now the communication is sort of rudimentary. It reminds me of playing King’s Quest in the early days of gaming, or the beginning of voice interaction with computers and virtual assistant’s like Siri.
While it’s pitched as a “natural language” communication, the reality is that the bot only understands certain phrases. I asked Hi Poncho, “Do I need a jacket today?”, which it understood immediately and answered, “No way! It’s warm out.” But, when I followed that up the way I would if I were speaking to an actual human with, “What about sunglasses?”, the Hi Poncho AI was stumped and replied, “Purrrrdon me?”
In the context of the conversation, the phrase “What about sunglasses?” should have made perfect sense. However, the Messenger bot only understands questions phrased the way it expects them, so without the “Do I need <insert thing here>?” syntax the bot is just confused.
One potential concern is bot spam. In the two minutes I spent with the Hi Poncho bot it asked me to set up automatic weather alerts daily in the morning and evening. As a test I agreed, but now I will be receiving two messages a day from this bot until I decide to turn it off.
Yes, I opted in to receiving these messages so I can’t really classify them as “spam”. I made a conscious decision to sign up for this service, and I can shut it off when I choose. Not all bots will be so “courteous”, though. I am sure there will be bots that take your initial conversation as permission to inundate you with updates, offers, and information you don’t want or need.
Granted, Facebook’s VP of Messaging Products, David Marcus, stressed to the developers at F8 that users will be able to shut off communication with bots that are annoying.
One Concierge vs. Many
I like the idea of these AI bots, and I think there’s tremendous potential to make Facebook Messenger an indispensable platform for communicating with companies and services in addition to the friends and family that make up my social network. I am particularly excited about being able to interact with a Messenger bot for quick questions rather than installing an app.
In some way, that makes Messenger a sort of default concierge service—the one app you can use to reach anyone and get just about any question answered. Within that app, however, you will still be engaging in and/or maintaining many relationships and conversations—possibly hundreds.
I would prefer to engage with a single AI as my concierge service, like Siri or Google Now. Rather than tracking down which Messenger bot account I need to speak with for Target customer support, or to order something from Edible Arrangements, I would rather just say, “Hey, Siri—I need Target customer support,” and have Siri fill the role that Messenger is trying to establish.
Maybe there will be a way—an API or something—that might allow virtual assistant AIs like Siri and Google Now to engage and interact with Messenger bot AIs on your behalf? We will see how developers embrace (or not) the concept of the Facebook Messenger bots, and how the technology evolves over time.