April 9th, 2017

The Weekly Archive: Bots Need To Focus On Human Problems

The bots are coming.

But perhaps not quite in the way you might hope.

Since companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, Slack and Microsoft began creating platforms for developers to build bots, the natural assumption has been that the bot revolution will take over. The “bots economy” would overtake the apps economy as platforms like Facebook Messenger bots and Amazon’s Alexa skills began dominating how people interact with digital properties, companies and brands.

We need to back up for a second.

Every time a new technology and end-user interface is introduced, people create unrealistic expectations that it will be the next big thing. The reaction is a byproduct of the mobile revolution. Every gadget is supposed to be as “the next iPhone” in terms of runaway product success. And we are disappointed every time. Tablets, smartwatches, streaming dongles, virtual reality goggles, voice-activated home assistants like the Amazon Echo and Google Home … all have failed (and will fail) to match how smartphones have fundamentally changed humanity.

Every new software platform is supposed to displace the apps economy as the dominant form of user interaction. Smartwatch apps, bots, virtual reality, voice skills … all will fail to match the size, breadth and impact of the apps economy.

The reality is that the iPhone and the advent of the apps economy were singular, transformational events that will not be repeated. Developers, entrepreneurs and companies are attempting to replicate a gold rush that is not coming.

(I will withhold comment on the coming of augmented reality because the technology is not yet ready and I hold the same gambler’s fallacy that maybe, just maybe, this next one will be the big one.)

All of this is not to say that this new wave of end points will be duds and false-start industries. Virtual reality will carve out a nice niche for itself and become commonplace. Voice skills will eventually be one of several methods that people regularly use to interact with technology and sit next to apps and the Web as a means to reach people.

When it comes to bots driven by artificial intelligence and served through platforms like Facebook Messenger, Skype or Slack, we may never see the singular commercial success stories that we saw emerge from the mobile revolution. From a market standpoint, the biggest exits of the mobile era have been apps like WhatsApp (acquired by Facebook for $19 billion) and Snapchat (initial public offering valuing the company at $25 billion). Uber and Airbnb both come from this world as well, though have found success not as pure user endpoints, but rather by disrupting how other industries do business.

Pertinent question: will there ever be a single bot that experiences this type of commercial or enterprise success? Will there ever be a single bot valued at a billion dollars? Or $100 million? $50 million?

At this point, that kind of future for individual bots built by an independent company is highly unlikely. But that doesn’t mean bots will be worthless.

The greatest value for bots—and this can be said about much of the new wave of technology—will be to enhance the human experience.

Technology, by definition, is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. The term “practical purposes” usually means: to assist humans in making tasks easier or less labor intensive. The wheel made it easier for humans to move themselves and material from point to point. Steam and combustion engines made it easier to power machines. Computers made it easier to perform large-scale logic operations. Smartphones made it easier to communicate and access information.

The practical purpose of artificial intelligence—of which bots are the tip of the iceberg—makes it easier for computers (and thus, humans) to make sense of large sets of data automatically and at scale.

The biggest benefit of bots will thus be the ability to humanize large data problems. For instance, customer service is a data problem. A company or a brand needs to be able to handle all of the incoming requests from its consumers. If you think of it as a data problem, you have hundreds of customers with incoming calls on an hourly basis. That is incoming data. The company then triages that data and connects a human to a person to augment the data to the customer’s wishes. It can be a time consuming process. Just remember any time you have ever been on hold or waited in silence while a customer service rep looks up your information on the phone.

Bots are natural to break through that particular bottleneck. The bots can triage all of that data instantly and at scale. Natural language processing converts human words to data which is then transferred to the database in the cloud where decisions are made. The bot then present interacts with the customer for the best outcome.

If we take this a step further, it is not just customer service centers that bots will change. Celebrities and music groups have found that bots are effective in communicating with fans. The notion of “conversational commerce” is another sales and customer service angle where humans augmented (though not replaced) by bots.

When you think of bots like a data problem in the context of the human application of technology, the surface area for bots to impact society becomes immense.

Just not in the way you thought.

Bots are not apps. We should not think bots can replace apps and build independent bot businesses in the same way that Snapchat, Facebook, Uber or WhatsApp rode the apps economy to billions. Bots are the beginning and end points of the data funnel. The purpose of that data is to serve human interests.

Weekly Archive Links Of The Week

PERSONALIZATION … is the human-centered approach to applying data to the interaction between brands and people. In 2017, it is an essential aspect of the digital experience for brands.

APP STORE OPTIMIZATION … has become table stakes in the apps economy. Here are the basics to get started optimizing your apps for discoverability.

REALTOR.COM … is focused on providing high-quality customer experience for house hunters.

WHAT … makes the European startup and technology ecosystem so different and why Americans tend to dismiss it.

SEVEN … out of 10 digital minutes are spent on smartphones.

MICROSOFTunveils the specs for Project Scorpio, the next Xbox coming in late 2017. The console is fully spec’d out with hardware that will likely lead to some interesting virtual reality applications in the home.

AMAZON … has some new developer tools for Alexa skills that give developers more data such as customer location.

GOOGLE’S … artificial intelligence chips—Tensor Processing Units—are pretty damn powerful. Chips like these placed into the cloud (which Microsoft is doing too) is going to accelerate machine learning adoption.

TWITCH … the video game streaming platform, is opening a store and will give streamers 5% of sales bought from their channels. To me, this makes perfect sense as almost every game I have bought recently, I researched it by watching players on Twitch.

THE GREATWalt Mossberg is retiring in June.

GOOGLE’Sfact checking service through search is rolling out worldwide.

Take deeper breaths, think bigger thoughts.

Dan Rowinski
ARC – The Application Resource Center