Evolution of the chatbot

Chatbots have come a long way since their humble beginnings as conversational novelties, such as Cleverbot. These days, chatbots are known by a variety of names, including 'virtual assistant', 'voice assistant' and 'conversational UI'. While these terms may refer to distinctly different products, they all have the same principle: simulate human interactions

Their functions now range from customer support via instant messenger, to helping doctors find suitable cancer treatments for patients.

Although chatbots' practical uses in the business world are still fairly limited at this stage, there is a lot of scope for their use in automating key aspects of business as the technology continues to evolve.

Let’s take a quick look at how they work:

chatbot concept

I, Chatbot

Chatbots are computer programs designed to process (understand and respond to) spoken or written inputs in a way that replicates human communication as closely as possible. This is called natural language processing, which is a significant component of artificial intelligence (AI).

This conversational UI (user interface) is intended to replicate human interactions as seamlessly as can be achieved with technology, with the intention of providing services that would be impractical or inefficient for a human to perform. 

The principle behind this is akin to asking, 'Why would you put a human face on a robot?' The answer is simple: people are used to – and good at – communicating with people. This is especially relevant for voice assistants, such as Apple’s voice assistant, Siri. Siri’s voice recognition capabilities rely on machine learning technology to ‘understand’ and ‘learn’ from users’ queries to answer questions or perform requested actions.

Instant messenger chatbots have also found their place in eCommerce and customer service.

Instead of having to call or email an enquiry, you can ask the chatbot general questions about a business’ services from the instant messenger tab on their app or website and receive a near-instant response without the help of a ‘real’ customer service representative. This makes the experience convenient for the customer and means the business doesn't need to dedicate a staffer to answering basic questions or working after business hours.

Of course, this has its limitations – more specific questions will require human input, but the chatbot can often escalate these to a real person if the customer requires it.

Revolutionary, my dear Watson

A class above these run-of-the-mill chatbots are advanced AI platforms, like IBM Watson. Watson is a supercomputer capable of processing data at an exceptionally high rate, designed to replicate humans’ advanced cognitive abilities and surpass the volume of information that mere mortals can sift through.

This makes technologies like Watson both a massive boon for businesses and, in some cases, a threat to jobs.

So, what does Watson do? Essentially, the same as the aforementioned chatbots – answer questions and retrieve information, but in far greater depth and scale. Watson’s advanced natural language processing capabilities allow it to answer complex questions significantly faster and more accurately than other, more conventional virtual assistants.

supercomputer concept

This AI technology has almost unlimited applications. This year, Watson has been used for hundreds of hours’ worth of reading about current and new medical information. With its data interpretation capabilities, Watson provides doctors with fast and up-to-date diagnostic information about cancer patients. In turn, this helps the doctors provide the treatment services best suited to individuals, potentially saving lives.

In terms of more mainstream applications, some businesses are licensing Watson’s analytical abilities to streamline and automate their key business activities.

This is where the versatility of AI technologies like Watson really becomes apparent. Watson is helping businesses do everything from develop strategies to save money, cut support costs and issue resolution times, analyse tens of thousands of pages of regulations and reward customers. You can read more about these outcomes here.

The bottom line 

Chatbots are one of the driving forces behind the hype about artificial intelligence, and for good reason. To have one product capable of streamlining transforming a business’s operations is an invaluable tool for reducing operating costs, increasing output and taking the strain off key staff. 

Stay tuned for most posts on artificial intelligence, machine learning and business automation.

multitasking concept