Chatbots: Have you dealth with latest craze?
CHATBOTS ARE HERE: Back in 2018, there were already more than 300,000 Facebook chatbots. That same year, the number of chatbots increased by 100,000 users. Business and customers combined sent around 8 billion messages a day over the past year. These staggering figures are only bound to increase. Image Credit: Yousra Zaki

Highlights

  • "Chatbots” have become ubiquitous, unobtrusive and popular: they do the repetitive tasks without complaint or off days. 
  • This multi-billion industry is expected to grow in value and usage — woven into our daily lives. 
  • Making chatbots more “human” is a tough one, but therein also a huge opportunity in this fast-growing industry.

THERE'S a good chance that by this time, you've used or interacted with an AI, or a “chatbot”. You may have unknowingly dealt with a number of them. Chatbots are everywhere, and have become part of our lives.

Disclosure: A chatbot was engaged in prepping for this article too (Say: “Hey Siri/Alexa, what is a chatbot?”). In reality, chatbots are virtual beings. Software "trained" to respond to humans. And they work quite decently, 24/7 without complaints or asking for health benefits. Therein lies its beauty — as well as a very tough challenge.

Hey Siri what is a chatbot
IF YOU HAVEN'T DONE IT YET, SAY: "Hey Siri, what is a chatbot?" next to an iOS device. You may also do this on an Amazon gear, with "Alexa, tell me a joke". Or Google, say "Google, what's the latest COVID news". Check the results.

What is a chatbot?

However, engaging in human-like conversations is a tough one, even for the smartest AI engineers. That’s why there an emerging dichotomy between conversational AI and chatbots.

What does conversational AI bring to the table?

First, let’s deal with the chatbot part. A chatbot is more than just kiddie fun. It is an industrial, practical use of artificial intelligence (AI). It chats with you, gives you information, supports, shops and books things for you.

Werner Kunz
Image Credit: Gulf News / Jay Hilotin

But it can do so much more. In general, chatbots are modern-day digital assistants and have proven pretty useful. They are great at answering routine questions or do routine tasks perfectlly without complaints or off days.

CONVERSATIONAL AI VS CHATBOTS:
▶ In general, a chatbot is a rules-based, bounded system based on well-defined categories.

▶ It knows how to solve Problem A, Problem B, Problem C. Chatbots, like manufacturing robots, are great doing repetitive tasks.

▶ However, most of the time, they’re not conversational — they just do one-time responses. In a way, they tend to be one-shot response systems, and not interactive.

Thanks to AI and “machine learning”, chatbots are “learning”, becoming more conversational. Industry experts say this will raise the use of chatbots to a higher pitch, though it’s still a long way before conversational AI can achieve human-like problem-solving capabilities.

The future is here: With Siri, Alexa and 300,000 others

Chatbots are popular, and that’s increasing by the day. They come in different shapes and names. Siri, known as the first intelligent assistant for everyone, came out in 2011; Alexa in 2014. They’re just two examples.

Siri brought AI to the mainstream. It’s now an integral part of Apple products. It is used more than 2 billion times a week in over 30 countries around the world.

1.898097-1274548539
FROM GIZMO TO MAINSTREAM: Siri brought AI to the mainstream. It’s now an integral part of Apple products. It is used more than 2 billion times a week in over 30 countries around the world.

Alexa, by Amazon, is another example. Amazon data show there were 53.6 million Amazon “Echo" speakers sold in the 2020. The number grew to 65 million in 2021.

Unpopular, frustrating

Unfortunately, chatbots or digital assistants can be unpopular with many customers.

chatbots
Chatbots can be frustrating, too, or serve downright foul goals, such as transmitting computer viruses or artificially increasing views on YouTube videos or web articles. Image Credit: Vijith Pullikal / Gulf News

Chatbots can be frustrating, too, or serve downright foul goals, such as transmitting computer viruses or artificially increasing views on YouTube videos or web articles.

Also, the use of text on a screen is quite limiting. Messaging or voice-based applications are the new frontier, taking chatbots to the realm of ubiquitous, unobtrusive — and “human-like”.

Chatbots explosion

WhatsApp, one of the most-used apps, is among the top chatbot platforms used specifically for business today. Software firm Sprout Social estimates that 80% of small business owners in India and Brazil said WhatsApp helps them improve customer service and grow business.

More and more bank interact with customers on WhatsApp — giving account statements and the like, for example. It’s convenience is thanks to the underlying AI.

8billion

number of messages a day sent by business and customers combined over the past year.

Mind-boggling numbers

Now get this: Today, there are tens of thousands of these digital assistants in use. That’s only bound to increase. Why? They’re quite useful. Back in 2018, there were already more than 300,000 Facebook chatbots.

That same year, the number of chatbots increased by 100,000 users. Business and customers combined sent around 8 billion messages a day over the past year. These staggering figures are only bound to increase.

Chatbots bank 1
WhatsApp, one of the most-used apps, is among the top chatbot platforms used specifically for business, such as a banking app (above) today.
Chat
Image Credit: Screengrab / Jay Hilotin / Gulf News

Millennials vs 'baby boomers'

What’s the way forward for chatbots? Usage is only expected to spike as the technology matures.

A Forbes report shows 3 out of 5 millennials — this digital-native generation known for trying new technologies and applying them everyday — have used chatbots at least once in their lives.

Millennials (or “Gen Y”, people born between 1981 and 1996) use social media apps more than any other generation. They interact with friends, get information, shop, or use apps for entertainment.

It’s not just the younger crowd: When “baby boomers” (the generation born between the end of WWII and the mid-1960s) use chatbots, they expect them to resolve problems, with around 61% expecting an “instant response”.

This is a high bar. And it’s a complicated by the fact that people also expect more “humanised” chatbots. It’s a tough challenge, but also presents a huge opportunity for the chatbot service community.

Challenges

What's the biggest challenge for the chatbots industry. How difficult it is to train the underling AI? For Werner Kunz-Cho, CEO of New York-based Fareportal, the tech firm leading hybrid travel agencies like CheapOair, OneTravel, the biggest challenge for chatbots in their industry is to distinguish between “intents”, given similar words and phrases.

“For example, a customer typing, 'I want a refund’ can be translated to either customers wanting to cancel their reservation or customers wanting an update on a refund for a reservation that was cancelled previously. This, coupled with understanding the sentiment of the customer, further makes it more challenging.”

How can chatbots help?

But for every problem there is a solution, or at least a roadmap for one. Kunz-Cho cites 3 key ingredients for chatbots can really help boost customer experience: conversational flow, 24/7 availability and deep integration.

  • Conversational flow: Ability to understand the intent of the customer and guide them to right path.
  • 24x7 availability: Users are in full control. Start chat anytime, drop any time. For complex products like travel where discovery takes time, chatbots are ideal.
  • Deep integration with other enterprise systems: To have the content and solution available from the other enterprise systems to solve customer queries is the most important ingredient of all.
TRAVEL CHATBOTS
The travel trade has integrated chatbots pretty well. The top three customer queries received from travelers or airline customer for the Fareportal chatbot are:
▶ View my booking details.

▶ Modify my booking.

▶ Cancel my booking.

Cognitive chatbots

“Cognitive chatbots” allow for greater business integration and presents a way forward. In the airline industry, for example, cognitive chatbots deliver end-to-end airline reservation process.

For simple airline bookings, the chatbots can and do perform this function.

Room to grow 

But there are still a lot of complex scenarios where a chatbot may not be able to guide a customer properly. So, there is still a lot of scope of improvements there and everyone is working towards plugging that gap.

“Another challenge in getting this done is the human understanding of technology. As a user, if I understand how these ‘cognitive chatbots’ work and respond, I can get the best out of it. But ‘solutioning’ it for a non-tech savvy user, it is going to be a challenge,” Kunz-Cho said.

Will chatbots use increase?

Quick answer: Yes. Shopping bots have been a boon to retail. More people expect being able to buy basic goods, like food or clothes — i.e. coconut flour, nuts, even luxury goods — online.

Chatbots Magazine estimates nearly 13% of shoppers are now buying more-expensive items using chatbots.

Tidio, a chatbot provider, reported that women tend to use chatbots for online shopping. On the other hand, men are most likely to turn to this technology to get answers to simple questions: 47.92% of men use chatbots if they can’t find answers to simple questions.

One industry estimate projects a 22.5% annual growth for chatbots, from $400 million in 2019 to $1.95 billion by 2027.

chatbot mental health
ROOM TO GROW: “There's still a lot of scope of improvements there and everyone is working towards plugging that gap,” Kunz-Cho told Gulf News. “Another challenge in getting this done is the human understanding of technology. As a user, if I understand how these ‘cognitive chatbots’ work and respond, I can get the best out of it. But solutioning it for a non-tech savvy user, it is going to be a challenge.”

What is 'assisted support'?

It’s a system where chatbot and human agents work together to improve the customer experience.

The bot will be able to handle more and more chats. When they transfer the chat, they provide complete context to the agents for resolving the customer query quicker and better.

Given the widespread chatbots use, will 'human touch' go away?

Human touch would always be essential part of the customer experience, argued Kunz-Cho.

While AI-powered chatbots engage your customers in real-time —by making live chat widgets easily-accessible to customers 24/7.

“A customer who is frustrated or stuck in a complex problem would need to talk a live agent. But the overall efficiency of the support system will keep on increasing with automation being made available through interactive chatbots.”

Could an article like this can be put together by a chatbot, and in a flash and make it more engaging? Perhaps. It could already be happening somewhere. And less boring, too. 

Timeline of Chatbots
Image Credit: Gulf News | Vijith Pulikkal