Has AI bewitched humans with chatbots?

Robots in disguise

Aug 11th 2017 

As the machines versus humans theme raged throughout the legendary sci-fi flick, Deckard’s sentiments rang true. And now, in a bona fide case of life imitating art, AI-driven chatbots are becoming part of daily life via multiple smartphone apps.

Who knows what their long-term influence on human users will be. In the short term, though, they’re proving rather adept at securing bookings and increasing brand awareness for enterprises. No wonder CNN, Dominos and Nike have rolled out chatbots, with 80% of brands expected to be bot-friendly by 2020.

“Replicants are like any other machine – they're either a benefit or a hazard,” said Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard, in Blade Runner.


The chatbot will see you now

Healthcare is also reaping the benefits of AI. Startup HelloAva launched its ‘beauty bot’ last year, aimed at users looking for cosmetic recommendations based on their skin-type.

And the NHS also recently touched down on planet bot by launching Babylon as an alternative to the non-emergency 111 number. More than 1.2m people in the London boroughs of Camden, Islington, Enfield and Barnet had access to the app in the first half of 2017. Interacting with the bot generally took 12 messages until a resolution, which was deemed quicker than speaking to a human call handler.

Bots can even help with mental health issues. The Silicon Valley startup X2AI has developed Karim to make psychotherapy available to the masses. In The Chatbot Will See You Now The New Yorker writer, Nick Romeo, details how the AI has had considerable success counselling traumatised Syrian refugees. Meanwhile X2AI’s other bots, Nema and Tess, can assist with paediatric diabetes and cognitive behavioural therapy.

House of representatives

In terms of political influence, there’s every chance that bots shall inherit the earth. After all, they’ve been communicating with the electorate by retweeting fake news and swamping hashtags.

The consequences of this are explored in Wired article Governments don’t set the political agenda anymore, bots do. Carl Miller of the Centre for Analysis of Social Media at the Demos think-tank writes that researchers believe during the EU referendum, up to a third of all Brexit-related tweets could be attributed to bots.

Miller concludes, “Other [bots] are learning how to sound more like humans, so that a typical unsuspecting user is likely to be fooled. These bots will push boundaries, change how we look at things, create public outcry, fake public outcry, skewer candidates, even try to become candidates.”

Gods from the machine

Despite increased usage, the bot business is still in a nascent phase due to an inability to shrug off its reputation for throwing up poor results and comments.

Microsoft learned about the shortcomings of chatbots the hard way. Last year Tay, who was supposed to “engage and entertain people where they connect with each other online through casual and playful conversation,” was hijacked and taught to became a sex-crazed, Hitler-supporting anti-Semite.

Unsurprisingly the tech industry wishes to avoid chatbot embarrassment. In Google quietly debuted Chatbase, a chatbot analytics platform, TechCrunch details the search engine giant’s attempts to avoid ‘doing a Tay’. Writer Ingrid Lunden notes that, “While there has been a lot of interest in making and using chatbots, there have been a lot of stumbles, too…This has led to some brands cooling on the idea of developing…even as the platforms continue to get smarter.”

Lunden goes on to reveal that Google is set to deploy an antidote to facepalm bot moments. A recent leak uncovered its solution, Chatbase, in private beta mode. The application can “track active users, retention, view metrics per intent or sentiment and fix broken experiences via a prioritised list of user messages not handled well.”

Facebook has also invested in chatbot improvements via its ParlAI software platform. As announced in the corporate blog post ParlAI: A new software platform for dialog research, the social media juggernaut intends to “bring together the community of researchers working on AI agents that perform dialog and continue pushing the state of the art in dialog research.”

As the march of the bots shows no sign of slowing, perhaps in the near future AI will achieve perfect mimicry of human parlance – edging the rise of the machines closer still.

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