Conversation as a Platform Featured Signal of Change: SoC894 September 2016

Authors: Rob Edmonds and Michael Gold (Send us feedback.)

Modes of interaction between humans and information technology have gone through changes. Touch-based apps have driven the mobile revolution, and emerging technologies that enable conversational interactions with systems and applications could change the way that users interact with and operate applications. A number of technology providers and software developers are working on chat bots for a variety of applications.

Personal assistants could become the default interfaces of most digitally mediated activities.

WeChat, the Chinese smartphone chat app from Tencent Holdings (Shenzhen, China), pioneered the conversation-as-a-platform business model. Although WeChat was initially a simple chat app, it has become a platform that enables its millions of users to "make hotel reservations, split bills, make doctor appointments, buy movie tickets, and shop via text message. When companies started using WeChat to sell their products, they employed humans to read the messages, text back, and sell the item. Now many are replacing people with software bots" ("Clippy's Back: The Future of Microsoft Is Chatbots," Bloomberg, 30 March 2016; online). Thanks in large part to third parties that use APIs (application-programming interfaces) to create lightweight apps with conversational user interfaces, WeChat helps users in China shop, access services, and even conduct business. For example, some WeChat services provide secure access to workplace customer-relationship-management systems.

Facebook (Menlo Park, California) recently launched a chat-bot-development platform for Facebook Messenger. Like WeChat, the Messenger platform allows third parties to create lightweight conversational apps and access Facebook APIs to process payments, send messages, and perform other duties. Bot providers can automate some conversational dialogue with the help of an API from start-up Wit.ai (Palo Alto, California), which Facebook acquired in 2015. During April 2016, Facebook introduced ways for businesses to operate chat bots on its Messenger platform. Reports indicate that the new bots perform poorly, but Facebook has rich resources available to improve the technology. Facebook also expects to host text conversations that are enabled by a combination of bots and human agents.

Microsoft (Redmond, Washington) is also investing in chat-bot software. The company has operated its Xiaoice advanced chat bot on various Chinese platforms since 2014 (and its similar Rinna chat bot is available in Japan). Unlike other chat bots that focus on answering questions and executing commands, Xiaoice engages in fairly continuous conversations about, for example, celebrities, images, and social-network memes. According to Microsoft, about 40 million people use Xiaoice, and the software uses deep-learning algorithms to analyze conversations on social media to gain natural-language abilities. During March 2016, Microsoft's Tay chat bot was briefly available on Twitter; however, mischief makers manipulated the apparently naive Tay into making racist comments, so Microsoft disabled the bot's online access. The company recently launched a bot-software-development platform for its Skype service. The platform is part of a wider Microsoft initiative to create a bot-development framework that will power bots across a variety of conversational platforms. Microsoft also hopes to differentiate itself from other providers of conversation-as-a-platform services by integrating bots with its Cortana intelligent personal assistant. During a recent developer conference, Microsoft demonstrated a Skype session during which users talked to Cortana to access a bot service.

Other organizations also provide conversation-as-a-platform services. Notable examples of such services include youth-oriented messaging service Kik Messenger (Kik Interactive; Waterloo, Canada) and workplace-messaging tool Slack (Slack Technologies; San Francisco, California).

Major information-technology vendors have put their money behind conversational user interfaces. According to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, "It's the power of human language applied to all computer interfaces.... Human language is the new user interface layer" ("Microsoft makes bots the cornerstone of its 'conversation as a platform' strategy," ZDNet, 31 March 2016; online). Vendors have differing visions of how the marketplace for conversational user interfaces will evolve. For Facebook, chat services will act as marketplaces for third-party bots (which is already the case for Tencent). For Amazon.com (Seattle, Washington), Apple (Cupertino, California), and Google (Alphabet; Mountain View, California), automated personal assistants might be the dominant conversational interfaces and integrate with third-party services behind the scenes. Microsoft envisions a combination of these two approaches in which its Cortana intelligent personal assistant brokers a conversation between a user and a bot.

Personal assistants could become both the default interfaces of most digitally mediated activities and the gatekeepers between many companies and their customers. Microsoft's recent demo shows that this potential outcome is consistent with the development of conversation-as-a-platform services. Although WeChat users currently select services for themselves, future conversation-as-a-platform services may include personal assistants that mediate between users and third parties.

Chat bots can be useful even if they are largely scripted and not very smart. Considering how much time people spend using instant-messaging and text-messaging apps, typing will often be the easiest way for users to request information and initiate transactions. Chat bots will likely expand their abilities to engage in natural-language conversations by learning from customers and human service agents. The number of competing platforms could increase. Reportedly, Google is working on bots that answer questions within instant-messaging apps. Additional text-messaging platforms in China have browser-like and app-like features and could become havens for business bots. Such platforms include Alibaba Group Holding's (Hangzhou, China) Alipay, Sina Corporation's (Shanghai, China) Weibo Messenger, Tencent's QQ Messenger, and Koudai Gouwu's (Beijing, China) Weidian.

Will chat bots compete with apps? They will in some cases. Features within WeChat seem to demonstrate that, for example, a restaurant does not need to develop an app to provide a high-quality interactive ordering experience. Instead, a chat window can present illustrated menus and accept payments. Messaging services can also host simple games, expense trackers, review sites, and more.

Extended messaging-service features seem to promise a new kind of browser—or, roughly speaking, an operating system for interactions among people, merchants, employers, government organizations, and other parties. However, many organizations (especially large ones) will develop and operate chat bots and provide interactive experiences both on messaging platforms and through existing channels for communications with customers such as websites, mobile apps, email-marketing programs, and call centers. Eventually, a bot might be able to communicate through any of these channels, reaching users through the channel that is most convenient for them.