They pop up when you are looking to make your first contact with a company. They may be a voice in your phone or a pop-up window on your computer or phone display.
What kind of conversation partners are today’s chatbots? They are increasingly smarter and more competent.
Although the machine-like artificiality of chatbot responses is still unmistakably there, a lot of the time we simply no longer care. The measurable benefits of communicating with bots tend to take precedence. As long as our questions are unambiguous and limited to basic issues that do not allow for multiple interpretations, chatbots can increasingly offer satisfactory responses. As the customer’s first line of contact with a company, they can make us happy with the conversation and provide a positive experience. Over time, chatbots will be increasingly used for just that: to ensure a good experience in contact with customer service and consequently improve company image. Another essential business benefit is workforce optimization. Why pump money into expensive call centers if a chatbot can do the job just as well?
The chatbot’s five minutes in the spotlight
Studies show that the popularity of chatbots is at an all-time high. According to Statista, even as early as three years ago an astounding 34 percent of e-commerce customers preferred dealing with AI (which powers chatbots) to talking to human consultants. Bots were valued for their efficiency, clarity of replies and 24/7 availability. They have become a fixture on social networks where they handle a crucial part of communications between the company, the brand and the client. Two years ago, Facebook operated over 300,000 chatbots. Experts project that the growing trend will continue. Some estimates go as far as to predict that chatbots are going to take over 85 percent of all remote customer communications as soon as next year. The single industry poised to benefit the most from this revolution is banking. Although chatbots frequently refer customers to human consultants, a number of activities such as authentications, logins, and transaction approvals are already performed with the help of machines acting as virtual assistants. Some experts believe that chatbots will handle 90 percent of customer bank relations within two years.
What chatbots can and cannot do
Customers appreciate chatbots’ skills in answering basic questions. What is crucial for assessing chatbot usefulness is their availability to talk virtually around the clock. For companies that have committed to staying in contact with their customers at all times in their mission statements, this is an invaluable advantage. Of course, you will not be able to discuss everything with a chatbot. Its responses are pre-programmed and allow for only a limited number of meaning combinations. In addition, many customers are hindered by a psychological barrier. An exchange with a chatbot is unemotional. Although precise and to the point, the advice and replies given may leave some with a sense of insecurity. Chatbots cannot differentiate between meanings on the basis of intonation, they don’t digress and can’t engage in chitter-chatter, which may be a big drawback for certain customers.
Alexa in every home
For the time being, chatbots do not get contextual subtleties. Nevertheless, they can in time learn to transcend the limitations of providing simple answers only, as evidenced by the growing popularity and rapidly improving abilities of the so-called voice assistants. The most popular of them, Alexa, is already running on over 80,000 digital devices of various types ranging from home appliances to all kinds of consumer electronics. In addition to Alexa, there’s also Google Home and Apple HomePod. You can ask them questions about the weather, sports scores, and stock prices. Their ability to give ever more complex answers is growing. If voice assistants succeed in refining their conversational skills, they will become as important for us in our daily lives as Google searches are today.
A real chat with the chatbot
The Microsoft-owned company Semantic Machines is doing research on conversational intelligence. The intention is for a device responding to our voice to take account of complex contexts, i.e. process information streams from multiple sources. The research is hoped to help develop voice assistants that can associate situational and meaning-related contexts with emotions and predict the intentions of their interlocutors. For example, an assistant ordered to book theater tickets will ask me about the time that suits me, whether I intend to take the subway to the venue and eat out after the performance. Such simple questions can evolve towards a conversation. If the process continues, chatbots will permanently change human and business communications.
As technology develops, chatbots’ skills and roles in business and society are bound to change. People will trust them more and allocate new duties to them. Bots will act as life guides, work assistants, and call center consultants. They will become irreplaceable tools for strengthening the relationship between the brand, the company, and the customer.
Will you gossip with a chatbot?
Chatbots developers should also account for the psychological aspects of interpersonal communication. In interpersonal relationships, a conversation is not just about sharing information. Through communication, people pursue other significantly more complex goals that relate to psychological and social needs. Suffice it to mention influencing others, developing one’s personality, asserting one’s place in the hierarchy, and building a sense of group acceptance and belongingness. People communicate not only to obtain and pass on information but also largely to build and strengthen relationships with others. A conversation with a chatbot offers no changes of achieving any such goals, which is why people tend to view it in transactional terms, at least at this stage of development.
Perhaps in the future, once AI begins to play social roles, people will see more point in engaging more extensively in communication with chatbots. Even today, the most advanced chatbots, such as Mitsuku, allow users to discuss topics more abstract than complaint filing or buying insurance policies. Mitsuku will discuss loneliness, offer advice on how to prepare for a job interview, or arrange a date.
Interestingly, early research shows that people behave differently when talking to chatbots than they do talking to people. This may seem obvious, but then it is not entirely so considering the users who are not aware they are talking to a robot rather than another human being. Perhaps the day will come when communication with machines will almost completely mimic conversations with people, with all of their nuances. Effective communication is challenging and sometimes could be considered an art. And even if we have not yet become masters of interpersonal communication, we should already start thinking about how to effectively communicate with machines.