For most, chatbots are only a vision in the future of digital communications. Especially the companies that are hoping for chatbots to take over the job of entire customer service departments. However, the current state of development seems very far away from that.

What is a bot anyway? A bot, shortened from robot, is an automated program designed to answer questions or perform tasks in an almost human way. Bots are old; about 50 years old. It was almost exactly 50 years ago that Joseph Weizenbaum, a German-American researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), created Eliza, the mother of all chatbots. You may also recall Clippy, Microsoft’s animated paper clip of the 1990’s, which was designed to be a virtual assistant for Microsoft Office users but was rather annoying. What both Eliza and Clippy were missing is technology that is interactive in a human-like way and gives us the answers we want.

What’s new in 2016 is the use of bots in chats and messenger apps such as Whatsapp, Kik, Line, WeChat, and Facebook’s Messenger. After Facebook’s F8 developer conference in April 2016, everyone seems to be electrified by chatbots. Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, announced plans to expand the Messenger app by providing the tools to build chatbots. So, what’s all the fuss about? Brands and companies will be able to expand to a platform where millions of people communicate intensively and trustingly, which also means their customer service channel would live on Facebook. Users can look forward to useful and uncomplicated new services.

Chatbot vs. App

The average smartphone user is installing and using less apps, creating a challenge for companies who would love for customers to use their app daily and intensively. Chatbots are now promising an all-in-one solution. Instead of creating multiple apps for the most common operating systems, smartphones, display sizes and app stores, companies can now reach billions of users by creating only one “micro-app” for Facebook’s Messenger. Some even believe that browsers or search engines might sooner or later become redundant because all content will be searchable within Facebook. The advantage for users is that they no longer have to install anything, create an account, or input any payment data. All the relevant data is already on the platform, not to mention all the input users provide Facebook on a regular and often daily basis. Bots are designed to use this data to create the best possible user experience.

Messaging services belong to the most successful services on the internet. With 900 million users, Whatsapp is the most popular messaging application. This number shows: People like to communicate and still do so primarily via text message. This finding has led to conversational user interfaces. Previously, we used to click on text links or buttons on websites or apps. In the future information will be designed to respond to our input. In other words: They will talk to us.

Hello, human.

Time to give chatbots a try. Living in San Francisco where the weather is moody and hard to predict, I decided to give Facebook Messenger’s Poncho a try. Poncho is a cat and mascot of the weather service that tailors weather information based on your inquiries.

Anyone can add Poncho by searching “Poncho” in Messenger’s search bar and can instantly chat about the weather, movies, or recipes. For starters, I tried some small talk. It only took a few seconds for Poncho to answer me.

Ponchoconv1

 

Not a bad start. But it quickly becomes clear that Poncho isn’t able to answer simple questions about the weather like one would expect:

Ponchoconv2

 

What appears fun quickly becomes annoying. Isn’t this supposed to be a faster, easier, more conversational way to get the information I need? A quick look at the iPhone’s pre-installed weather app would have been much faster for a simple weather forecast. “We’re at the start of a long process with where we want to go with the Poncho bot”, said Poncho’s CEO Sam Mandel during an interview with Tech Insider. But the company’s goal is “to build the chattiest, friendliest bot that would actually become part of your daily routine” in Messenger.

Artificial Intelligence will make chatbots smarter

Around 40 companies have announced plans for bots, although only about a dozen are currently available according to botlist.

Like Poncho, most chatbots don’t react well to colloquial speech but rather need clearly structured questions in order to respond usefully. This was clearly visible with my test chat with Poncho. Some service providers are trying to smooth out chatbots shortcomings with human assistance, like the online fashion retailer, Spring. At first, Spring’s bot shows you a wide range of products such as clothing, shoes, and accessories. If you select shoes, you can search for different different price and size options and you will finally be presented with a small selection of shoes with pictures. The bot makes it possible to buy the products directly within the Messenger chat window. But, if you’re looking for something more specific, you will eventually end up with one of Spring’s (human) assistants.

Springbot

Apart from the initial excitement of communicating with a robot, Facebook’s chatbots are quite frustrating so far. For example, there is no common language that all chatbots understand. Each bot that is designed for Facebook is programmed differently based on the service provider. This means that the user has to learn different ‘chatbot languages’. Ultimately bringing us back to where we started: the website. Why bother to shop in a tiny chat window when there’s more information on the website? What does a weather bot like Poncho have to offer that the standard weather app doesn’t? The answer: Not much, at least not yet.

Meanwhile, bot evangelists are playing for time: Bots will improve. Progress in the field of Artificial Intelligence should ensure that. In fact, Facebook’s chatbots already have access to the self-learning algorithms that come from Facebook’s servers and are becoming ‘smarter’ with each user interaction. This data could one day provide customized responses for each user. Until then, it seems like we have to be satisfied with a little small talk, bringing an umbrella, and guacamole recipes.