As I tinker with dialog systems at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, primarily by prototyping Alexa skills, I often wonder what AI is still lacking to build good conversational systems, punting the social challenge to another day. This post is my take on where AI has a good chance to improve and consequently, what we can expect from the next wave of conversational systems.
Google, the company with perhaps the greatest artificial intelligence chops and the biggest collection of data about you — both of which power effective bots — has been behind here. But it is almost certainly plotting ways to catch up. Google Now, its personal assistant system built within Android, serves many functions of the new wave of bots, but has had hiccups. The company is reportedly working on a chatbot that will live in a mobile messaging product and is experimenting with ways to integrate Now deeper with search.
In a traditional application, the user interface (UI) consists of a series of screens, and a single app or website can use one or more screens as needed to exchange information with the user. Most applications start with a main screen where users initially land, and that screen provides navigation that leads to other screens for various functions like starting a new order, browsing products, or looking for help.
There are several defined conversational branches that the bots can take depending on what the user enters, but the primary goal of the app is to sell comic books and movie tickets. As a result, the conversations users can have with Star-Lord might feel a little forced. One aspect of the experience the app gets right, however, is the fact that the conversations users can have with the bot are interspersed with gorgeous, full-color artwork from Marvel’s comics.
According to the Journal of Medical Internet Research, "Chatbots are [...] increasingly used in particular for mental health applications, prevention and behavior change applications (such as smoking cessation or physical activity interventions).". They have been shown to serve as a cost-effective and accessible therapeutic agents for indications such as depression and anxiety. A conversational agent called Woebot has been shown to significantly reduce depression in young adults.
Chatbots succeed when a clear understanding of user intent drives development of both the chatbot logic and the end-user interaction. As part of your scoping process, define the intentions of potential users. What goals will they express in their input? For example, will users want to buy an airline ticket, figure out whether a medical procedure is covered by their insurance plan or determine whether they need to bring their computer in for repair?
Creating a comprehensive conversational flow chart will feel like the greatest hurdle of the process, but know it's just the beginning. It's the commitment to tweaking and improving in the months and years following that makes a great bot. As Clara de Soto, cofounder of Reply.ai, told VentureBeat, "You're never just 'building a bot' so much as launching a 'conversational strategy' — one that's constantly evolving and being optimized based on how users are actually interacting with it."
With the AI future closer to becoming a reality, companies need to begin preparing to join that reality—or risk getting left behind. Bots are a small, manageable first step toward becoming an intelligent enterprise that can make better decisions more quickly, operate more efficiently, and create the experiences that keep customers and employees engaged.
[In] artificial intelligence ... machines are made to behave in wondrous ways, often sufficient to dazzle even the most experienced observer. But once a particular program is unmasked, once its inner workings are explained ... its magic crumbles away; it stands revealed as a mere collection of procedures ... The observer says to himself "I could have written that". With that thought he moves the program in question from the shelf marked "intelligent", to that reserved for curios ... The object of this paper is to cause just such a re-evaluation of the program about to be "explained". Few programs ever needed it more.
Authentication. Users start by authenticating themselves using whatever mechanism is provided by their channel of communication with the bot. The bot framework supports many communication channels, including Cortana, Microsoft Teams, Facebook Messenger, Kik, and Slack. For a list of channels, see Connect a bot to channels. When you create a bot with Azure Bot Service, the Web Chat channel is automatically configured. This channel allows users to interact with your bot directly in a web page. You can also connect the bot to a custom app by using the Direct Line channel. The user's identity is used to provide role-based access control, as well as to serve personalized content.
“Major shifts on large platforms should be seen as an opportunities for distribution. That said, we need to be careful not to judge the very early prototypes too harshly as the platforms are far from complete. I believe Facebook’s recent launch is the beginning of a new application platform for micro application experiences. The fundamental idea is that customers will interact with just enough UI, whether conversational and/or widgets, to be delighted by a service/brand with immediate access to a rich profile and without the complexities of installing a native app, all fueled by mature advertising products. It’s potentially a massive opportunity.” — Aaron Batalion, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners