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Covering the world of chatbots

January 12, 2017

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As technology continues to grow, here are some ways you should start thinking about how automation and artificial intelligence will impact local businesses. (“Robot Artificial Intelligence” by Pixabay user “geralt” CC0 license Public Domain)

Chatbots, computer programs designed to converse with humans, can perform all sorts of activities. They can help users book a vacation, order a pizza, negotiate with Comcast or even communicate with POTUS. Instead of calling or emailing a representative at the company, consumers chat with a robot that uses artificial intelligence to simulate natural conversation. A growing number of startups and more established companies now use them to interact with users via Facebook Messenger, SMS, chat-specific apps such as Kik or the company’s own site.

But as Microsoft learned last year with its chatbot Tay, that technology can backfire if it’s not properly deployed. Tay was designed to learn conversational language over time, so users tweeting racist and sexist comments at the bot taught it to parrot that language.

To cover this emerging business story, reporters can seek out companies in their area that use chatbots, or find local tech firms that are building them. Local universities may have professors or other experts available who can provide big-picture context, too. (Expertise Finder can help you identify professors and their specific areas of study.)

Potential chatbot business story angles

• Why and how are local companies using chatbots? Do they consider it a passing fad? Are consumers demanding this type of customer experience? Or do companies feel they need a chatbot to remain competitive with other players in their industry?

• For companies relying on chatbots to help with customer service, what are the economics of building and maintaining a chatbot, vs. a live representative?

• Can you find more unusual use cases for chatbots in your local area? For instance, while many chatbots interact with users on behalf of a company, a few will interact with companies on behalf of customers, saving them time and aggravation. For instance, personal finance app Trim built a chatbot that will communicate with Comcast for you, asking for a credit or trying to negotiate your bill.

• What’s in a name? How do companies choose a name for their chatbot? Interestingly, several media outlets found that digital assistants and chatbots predominantly have female names, so identifying examples that buck this trend could be intriguing.

• What are these companies doing to avoid a repeat of the Microsoft incident? Are they favoring simplicity over personality? Or perhaps doing more testing before deploying their chatbot?

• Are these chatbots able to communicate with consumers with disabilities? For instance, some (not all) iOS apps are compatible with VoiceOver, an Apple screen reader that interacts with apps for blind and low-vision users.

• Are these chatbots actually driving sales? Or are they streamlining customer service so that basic tasks like scheduling or changing appointments don’t require staff time? Try to get relevant stats on customer engagement or other metrics.


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