“Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Chatbot” is an odd phrase to hear, but these are strange times we live in. Search for ‘chatbot’ and almost every country is launching one to act as a contact and information point to ease the load on health services during the spread of the Coronavirus.
Of course, politicians would like to tout these bots as big deals, which is why Donald Trump jumped the gun on Google’s health division efforts, forcing this response. “Statement from Verily: We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing. Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time.”
Yet, from Goa to Italy, Pakistan to all corners of the States and across Europe, chatbots and other tech tools are launching at a frenetic rate to help deal with the volume of queries and reassure their populations about the spread and provide good practice advice.
While most bot vendors have spent years touting their AI smarts, most of these bots are simply-designed information providers. They use effective but limited scripts to help get those key messages across and have plenty of links to other key resources. Some bots offer no-code development platforms and cloud services, enabling anyone to create a simple bot that they can add smarter features to over time.
The aim is take the load off phone lines, and to help avoid personal contact with hard-pressed medical staff already at great risk from the Covid-19 virus. Discussing the Goan example, Health Minister Vishwajit Rane on Wednesday launched Cobot-19, saying:
“The aim is to provide people with access to authentic, helpful and easy-to-understand information about the disease. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged all stakeholders to come together and make the best use of technology to tackle the ongoing health crisis. With the Chatbot, people will be able to resolve their queries regarding the precautions to be taken to avoid getting infected; diet to boost immunity; health department contact information in case of emergency, among other things.”
Bots beyond the health cordon
Beyond the health emergency, chatbots are coming to the fore as useful tools for companies offering remote working, helping provide the latest internal news and general developments. Bots are also being used for level-zero technical support as people get to grips with working from home, facing connectivity issues and VPN/access problems that were never an issue in the office.
And, for people starting new businesses during their enforced time at home, bots are playing a vital part in their more traditional roles for customer service, appointment book and order taking for the fledgling companies. Having a bot handle inquiries 24/7 takes some of the pressure off people trying to start or deliver work.
Across larger businesses, bots are being drafted in to help manage supply chains as suppliers, manufacturers and other agencies deal with moving goods and freight through a mire of quarantine zones and jammed up warehouse facilities. These will be key as the squeeze on supplies gets stronger with people still panic buying and so on.
For example, there is plenty of toilet roll in the UK and Australia, the trouble is getting it to stores where people rapidly snap up any stock. Hopefully, the limits on bulk buying will ease that situation, but for everything else supply chains and their bots are working overtime to provide effective and necessary deliveries for everything from drugs to bottled water and even life’s little luxuries that will keep people through periods of stay-at-home isolation.
And within many labs, AI and machine learning are being used to analyse the virus and develop cures. The likes of DeepMind are hard at work, “using the latest version of its AlphaFold system by releasing structure predictions of several under-studied proteins associated with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.”
The AIs are also helping moderate forums to keep fake news and false information to a minimum, especially as the human workforce is sent home to isolate. AI will play a huge rule behind the scenes in how the virus is fought.
The long-term future looks brighter for bots
What has been clear is that government planning has, again, proven woeful. Expect uture disaster planners to look to technology to better inform and guide the public. Don’t forget it was an AI system that first alerted the Covid-19, and future systems will help track and trace events faster and more accurately than current methods.
Recent stats show that 65% of European consumers, with 70% of those aged between 18-34yrs, are interested in using chatbots and other forms of digital messaging. Expect the next set of figures to show jumps across all age groups as teens use bots to better understand their education options, and the older users get bot familiar to help them understand the current medical issues.
In the future, our whole supply chain could be automated with drone boats crossing the oceans, robot trucks cruising the highways and flyers doing last-mile deliveries to individual stores or consumers. Of course, that opens up the risk of hi-tech piracy on new scales, and still relies on factories or farms churning goods and produce, but getting used to bots now will prepare businesses for this type of future.
And, as smart cities come online, they will integrate with medical planning systems to help people avoid hotspot zones, show them where medical help is available, and even simple things like showing where supplies are in stock at particular retailers. That will help in any future medical or climate emergency we face, with chatbots integrated into all aspects of the technology to provide help.