“Bots go bust” — so went the first of the five AI startup predictions in 2017 by Bradford Cross, countering some recent excitement around conversational AI (see for example O’Reilly’s “Why 2016 is shaping up to be the Year of the Bot”). The main argument was that social intelligence, rather than artificial intelligence is lacking, rendering bots utilitarian and boring.
Artificial neural networks, invented in the 1940’s, are a way of calculating an output from an input (a classification) using weighted connections (“synapses”) that are calculated from repeated iterations through training data. Each pass through the training data alters the weights such that the neural network produces the output with greater “accuracy” (lower error rate).
The most widely used anti-bot technique is the use of CAPTCHA, which is a form of Turing test used to distinguish between a human user and a less-sophisticated AI-powered bot, by the use of graphically-encoded human-readable text. Examples of providers include Recaptcha, and commercial companies such as Minteye, Solve Media, and NuCaptcha. Captchas, however, are not foolproof in preventing bots as they can often be circumvented by computer character recognition, security holes, and even by outsourcing captcha solving to cheap laborers.
What began as a televised ad campaign eventually became a fully interactive chatbot developed for PG Tips’ parent company, Unilever (which also happens to own an alarming number of the most commonly known household brands) by London-based agency Ubisend, which specializes in developing bespoke chatbot applications for brands. The aim of the bot was to not only raise brand awareness for PG Tips tea, but also to raise funds for Red Nose Day through the 1 Million Laughs campaign.
These are hardly ideas of Hollywood’s science fiction. Even when the Starbucks bot can sound like Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha, the public will be unimpressed — we would prefer a real human interaction. Yet the public won’t have a choice; efficient task-oriented dialog agents will be the automatic vending machines and airport check-in kiosks of the near future.
Companies and customers can benefit from internet bots. Internet bots are allowing customers to communicate with companies without having to communicate with a person. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has produced a chatbot that allows customers to receive boarding passes, check in reminders, and other information that is needed for a flight. Companies have made chatbots that can benefit customers. Customer engagement has grown since these chatbots have been developed.
ELIZA's key method of operation (copied by chatbot designers ever since) involves the recognition of clue words or phrases in the input, and the output of corresponding pre-prepared or pre-programmed responses that can move the conversation forward in an apparently meaningful way (e.g. by responding to any input that contains the word 'MOTHER' with 'TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR FAMILY'). Thus an illusion of understanding is generated, even though the processing involved has been merely superficial. ELIZA showed that such an illusion is surprisingly easy to generate, because human judges are so ready to give the benefit of the doubt when conversational responses are capable of being interpreted as "intelligent".