The Future of Chatbots in the Move to Online Conversation

A blue brain, seen from above, in circles with horizontal lines on either side, like those of a computer chip.

By Avi Benezra

Chatbots have already changed plenty over their short history, becoming smarter, broader and more capable of interacting with other services. The future of chatbots will see even greater diversity as they are folded into virtual assistants, while the big issues like ethical AI will make headlines and drive changes in how chatbots operate.

The chatbot journey is one we are all going on, as business leaders, customers, health service users or travelers. Therefore, it is vital that we all understand where these bots are going, and the way they will join up with other technologies and services to improve and provide greater benefits for all of us.

Technology innovation is a constant. Nothing stands still, with developers and vendors always pushing for the next version, that unique piece of differentiation or bolting on new features. As children of the cloud era, chatbots are already a well-advanced technology, easily plugged into other services through APIs, linking into AI technology to make them smarter and evolutionary beings that can teach themselves and grow through user interaction.

New generations of bots will make use of AI to expand their range, add better multilingual features and appear in more customer service, unified communication, and other applications, as they become a key tool for all businesses as part of the conversation as a platform. Natural language processing and natural language understanding are already common features within bots, but will become broader, smarter features, allowing any type of language or colloquialism to be understood and replied to.

The future scope of chatbots is limited only by where end users want to deploy them, or where vendors want to add them into their services and products as part of their expanded offerings that must cater to the needs of customers who expect bots-with-everything.

This is the Chatbot Future

What is certain, is that interactive chatbots will evolve rapidly. Bots that currently act as point products, fulfilling a specific need will offer a wider range of services. And with millions of businesses still to launch their first bot, or understand what the technology is (for more on chatbot basics, this magazine has a guide here), there remains a huge audience and market for bots.

For example, there are plenty of chatbots in education with many limited uses. Those uses will rapidly fold into one or two more useful bots. A chatbot that currently supports a college course, helping provide lesson plans, room numbers and attendance, could soon help by teaching those lessons, providing revision advice, ad hoc testing and much more to add value to both the students on the course, and to the college through improved pass rates.

Within a business, chatbots will also help drive how workers react and cooperate with increasingly smart AI. They can act as a training tool showing all levels of workers what AI is, and what it means to the company, without threatening jobs.

The chatbot can help with the discussion through demonstrations about what AI means to the business in terms of analytics, productivity and predictability, and how it can help drive changes. That’s as all businesses that became IT companies in the early 21st century will become AI companies as we race into the new decade and beyond.

Smart companies will use AI as part of their deciding strategy, so how long will it be until an AI takes a place in the boardroom around strategic discussions, while chatbots help workers embrace and engage in yet another digital revolution. Smart chatbots won’t replace the bosses explaining a company’s future or choices, but it can help everyone understand the detail and issues.

Marketing and Media Will Love 2020’s Chatbots

Chatbots have had some notable success in customer experience and marketing but remain underserved in this area as brands focus on social media and traditional methods to get their messages out. However, in the near future as Facebook Messenger and similar channels become the dominant form of brand chat.

The success and analytics insights from marketing automation will bring chatbots to the fore, as consumers can engage more with brands. Fun quizzes, Q&As and other events are why social media chatbots are the future of communication with audiences from sport to music and beyond.

Consider a shop chatbot that follows the customer around on their journey through a store making helpful suggestions via the barcode scanner app, something relatively simple could help revolutionize shopping and get people looking at recipes or meal plans in a new way thanks to a digital assistant.

Marketers can get live feedback on changes or updates to products, can discuss highlights and lowlights of current events, all through chatbots that are will be just as smart as a human agent within the marketing/engagement field.

Customer Service Chatbots Will Be Everywhere

Chatbots already dominate the customer service landscape, helping high-volume contact centers, like airlines, hotels, banks and utility providers, handle billions of queries each year, speeding up queries, improving customer satisfaction and reducing the stress on agents.

The savings in time and effort make chatbots indispensable, but the shift to bots as sales tools, providing customer upgrades, finding cheaper deals and so on will help drive the idea of customers having a one-to-one conversation with a bot that can handle the vast majority of their interactions with a customer.

Chatbots and voice are shaping the future of banking, with most large banks around the world already operating bots within their apps or websites. Banks will soon use digital avatars to welcome guests and hold discussions covering the full range of banking services. Their apps will use facial recognition like FaceID for authentication, reducing the time to reach the chatbot, and bots can then talk to customers, showing them how they could save more money, or highlighting the costs of their banking to help encourage better behavior.

The Ethics of AI and Beyond

Much of this advancement hinges on users and businesses being able to trust their chatbots. Both to deliver the right answer and to protect the rights and data of all parties. As AI becomes a key role in all chatbots, companies need to understand what the AI is doing, especially if it comes from a third party, and how data is processed through any cloud services to maintain privacy and security.

Chatbot backend tools and the use of blockchain and encryption are key to making this secure future a reality. Yes, there will always be weaknesses and exploits, but for most uses these levels of security will be plenty to protect data and users, especially when it comes to medical chatbots, personal discussions about mental health and when bots interact with sales sites or bank accounts for transactions.

Beyond the general beneficial chatbot, we could also see issues about how bots are used in politics or government. Is it right that youngsters or people who are easily persuaded might be hammered with chatbot messages in the run-up to an election that could skew their perception and voting intention? Or, how about a rival business trying to deliberately skew a rival’s AI chatbot through repeated nonsensical or abusive references?

Is it fair for bots in totalitarian states to report people who are expressing personal opinions that might go against those of the state? In China where people’s social credit scores already affect their daily lives, these types of bots could have a huge impact, and it would only take a few more years for those ideas to take hold in right-wing states. 

The answers to these questions and issues will take time and, ironically, political intervention to hammer out. Yet, as with the fear about smartphones, cloud, 5G networks and other gremlins, solutions will be worked out and rules created for the benefit of all.

Chatbots in the Smart Home and Office

Much of the chatbot evolution still focuses on text as the primary means of communication, but we’ve already seen where banks can use voices and avatars to communicate, something that will grow as people get smarter home technology.

Chatbots can easily be tuned to work with Amazon Alexa or Apple Siri virtual assistants, bringing conversations to a new level. On phones or smart home touch screens, emoji characters or video avatars can add a new fun or professional face to chatbots, while augmented and virtual reality bots can add amazing levels of graphical fidelity to hold highly visual conversations.

That will be of greater use in the office where AR/VR training chatbots can teach engineers how to install or service products. The bots can act as examiners to demonstrate understanding and levels of skills to highlight the best candidates and those who need further training.

Even before people start work for a company, chatbots are already holding basic job interviews with candidates to assess their suitability for a business. Those bots as they get smarter and observer HR recruiters in action will be able to hold or take part in second or third interviews to pick up cues or traits that the people in the room might miss, using cameras to observe, AI to gain meaning and then ask questions that can probe how candidates really feel.

Step into the Future of Chatbots

You may have used a chatbot already, or your business might be looking to build its first versions. Yet, while all these ideas, the pace of progress and the use of technology might feel giddy and blinding, there has never been a better time to launch a chatbot and find out what the capabilities are within your business or organization.

Getting that foot on the first rung of the ladder overcomes any existing stigma against chatbots and allows both your business and customers/users to feel their way into the technology. From which, all the exciting future stuff and features will come naturally as your bots expand through new services and AI features. 

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