Rise of the Machines: Facebook Adds Bots to Messenger App

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The bots have landed. As tech companies continue to invest in artificial intelligence programming and bot technology, automation is on the road to becoming the default way customers interact with businesses in a variety of different ways.

Yesterday, Facebook announced at its annual F8 Developer Conference that the company is set to begin a broad implementation of bots into its incredibly popular Messenger app. With its access to the more than 900 million users and 50 million businesses already on the platform, Facebook’s move could be seen as the most viable shift to bring bot technology into the communications mainstream.

According to a Facebook blog post, “Bots can provide anything from automated subscription content like weather and traffic updates, to customized communications like receipts, shipping notifications, and live automated messages all by interacting directly with the people who want to get them.”

Messenger will offer companies a variety of methods and media options to interact with consumers. Bots on the platform can be built with the capability to respond to users with more than text. Businesses will have the ability to send automated messages that include images, links and call-to-action buttons.

This configuration of automated technology has the potential to revolutionize branded communications. Companies have the potential to orchestrate highly-targeted commerce through messaging apps by using bots to allow users to input shopping criteria, then the technology would only display products they like. Instead of sifting through a deluge of news content or blog posts from a given source, a bot could curate only the stories a user already expressed interest in. Not to mention the obliteration of call centers and the archaic-feeling customer service options that are currently in use.

Facebook also plans to implement a number of advertising features into the new Messenger experience. Businesses will be able to send “Sponsored Messages” ads to people who have already started a conversation with the business, TechCrunch reported. Brands will also have the ability to place News Feed ads that start a conversation with the company’s bot when clicked.

However, it’s important to note that artificial intelligence and bots are still rather untested technologies. Even though Facebook already partnered with brands like 1-800-Flowers, there are still many aspects of customer communication that the current bots just aren’t advanced enough to handle. Before we see humans becoming completely obsolete, both brands and users are going to have to work together to figure out which capacities these technologies can be most efficiently deployed in.

Taking a look a Microsoft’s recent foray into artificial intelligence offers a fitting opportunity to take a step back and really assess the roadblocks in the way of this becoming a mainstream technology.

On March 23, Microsoft launched Tay, a chatbot that used public data and user input to have casual conversations with Twitter users. Unfortunately for Microsoft, it took the Internet less than 24 hours to turn the once-innocent artificial intelligence bot into a mouthpiece for some of the most offensive speech the web has to offer. With Tay repeating and generating a series of strange, racist and misogynist tweets, this experiment in machine learning shows that the technology behind artificial intelligence and bots has some growing up to do.

But the drawbacks to this kind of technology shouldn’t influence the savvy communicator to abandon the idea of bots altogether. The fact that Facebook is putting its considerable weight behind this new method of communication should be enough for PR pros to keep a close eye on this technology, and maybe even take the plunge.

Follow Mark: @MarkRenfree