Lions and Tigers and Bots, Oh My!

April 29, 2016

Microsoft, Facebook, Slack… Simone, Her, and i, Robot. Bots of all kinds have long been the subject of movies and software centered on artificial intelligence, but as of late the hype about bots, specifically chatbots, has spiked considerably. Headlines confetti the internet claiming chatbots are the hot new thing in tech and represent the future, like it or not. But why the sudden interest in chatbots when they’ve been around for so long? Who keeps making them, and what do they really do?

A Brief History of Bots

Chatbots have actually been around since the 1960s. If you ever had a screen name on the once popular AIM, you’re likely familiar with a bot named Smarter Child. Bots that followed, like Slackbot, stayed true to just being fun software for chatting or getting simple information from.  Over time, the utility and complexity of bots has become increasingly sophisticated, resulting in things like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.   Fast forward to today, and you have companies like Microsoft and Facebook jazzed about providing a real service through bots, generating the closest thing to authentic human interaction that is possible from software.

The Future of Bots

The goal of many companies, like Microsoft and Facebook, has become creating a bot that provides information or entertainment for users, learns about users for companies, and does so in a natural conversation tone. Such bots would serve as a resource for users, and may even make helpful suggestions before being asked. For example, a bot might provide a tip about a sale for a frequent online shopper by sending a message saying, “Hey there. Did you check out the sale? It ends Tuesday and has items similar to those you’ve purchased before.” Exchanges with the bot will feel like a natural interaction or “online friend” than a marketing gimmick.

Drawing the Line

Like other technologies, the advancement of bots may turn into a slippery, downhill slope. While the aim of bot software is to learn from previous interactions, it doesn’t always work so well because bots struggle to distinguish blunt offensiveness (after all, they’re bots, not people). Microsoft learned this the hard way when they released their bot, Tay, to chat with Twitter users. Tay’s algorithm was reportedly tailored towards imitating the thoughts and behaviors of the average teenage internet user, the goal being a better understand of language and conversation among millenials. Unfortunately, Tay’s adolescent learning curve was exploited when the bot latched on to primarily negative content, resulting in a slew of racist tweets (and a prompt shut-down by her Microsoft makers…yikes). Perhaps the greater take-away here is that tech companies have a responsibility to know when and where to draw the line. While artificial intelligence is an opportunity exceedingly full of the potential, it also comes with a near equal and opposite capacity for damage. Taming bot software and maintaining appropriate use of it will come when its creators draw the line at practical utility before it spills over into an excess service doomed for exploitation.

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