And How Can I Assist You Today, Sir?

“I propose to consider the question, ‘Can machines think?’…The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game which we call the ‘imitation game.’”

It was with these now-famous words that the English mathematician, Alan Turing, described the celebrated Turing Test in 1950.  This quasi-philosophical assessment states that if a computer program demonstrates the ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human, it can be said to ‘think.’

If Turing were alive today he would probably be impressed and openly welcome the dawn of chatbots.

Chatbots – sometimes also referred to simply as bots – are sentient computer programs, or ‘agents,’ that await typed or spoken questions and through complex artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms react to an designated task by impersonating some form of credible human conversation.

The general social acceptance of interactive chatbots, once the realm of science fiction or Hollywood movies, can be assessed from the wide popularity of such chatbots as Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s Now and Amazon’s Echo, to mention just a few.

David Marcus, Vice President of Messaging Products at Facebook, was recently quoted on the American science and technology magazine ‘Wired’ as saying that it is his belief that the “Internet is today reorganising itself – yet again.”  Marcus predicts that in this current “post-app world,” chatbots will become “something much grander” than pervasive apps – possibly the next step in the Internet’s rapid evolution.  Similarly, Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, recently declared that “Bots are the new apps!

The importance of chatbots was recently underscored by Apple.  Every year, this company organises a Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco.  Until recently users asking Apple’s Siri when this year’s WWDC would be held, would receive the answer, “WWDC is not yet announced.”  However, as from April 16th of this year, Siri would uncannily declare that, “…the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) will be held June 13 through June 17 in San Francisco. I can’t wait!”  Apple chose to first announce this year’s conference through Siri rather than conventional or traditional channels.

The market for messaging apps is already truly impressive; the popular text-messaging program Facebook Messenger today boasts an active user-base of more than 900 million users.  The market analysis company App Annie recently reported that those aged between thirteen and twenty-four, currently spend much more time on messaging apps than they do on traditional email applications.  About 2.5 billion people are registered with at least one messaging app, according to the advisory firm Activate.  This same company estimates that by 2018, the number of registered messaging app users will rise to a staggering 3.6 billion, equivalent to 90% of the world’s Internet-enabled population.

Currently, most messaging applications provide the functionality to capture text and images and broadcast these as messages.  However, future messaging applications are bound to include functionality that exploits the emerging domain of artificial intelligence techniques to produce more useful and interactive chatbots.

It is therefore hardly surprising that during Facebook’s recent annual F8 Facebook Developer Conference, this company announced plans to launch a product programme aimed at encouraging business organisations to enhance interaction across Facebook Messenger.  Facebook declared that it was making its software development tools available to programmers interested in creating chatbots that work over Facebook Messenger.  The goal is to transform Facebook Messenger into a platform from where users can browse, compare products, purchase, and receive important updates.  Facebook declared its objective to ‘[continue] to find innovative ways to help businesses enrich their customers’ journeys through the Messenger Platform.’

During the same conference Facebook disclosed the outcome of a successful partnership between itself and the cloud-based customer service company Zendesk.  Zendesk demonstrated how two of its client companies had successfully integrated Facebook’s relatively new Businesses on Messenger with Zendesk’s own live-chat product, Zopim.

Everlane ( is an online-only apparel retailer that today provides customer engagement and support through Facebook Messenger – complimenting all other traditional channels such as e-mail, phone and Facebook posts.

Similarly, Zulily (, another online retailer, has integrated Business on Messenger and Zendesk to collect customer order information and interact back through Facebook Messenger as well as Zendesk’s Zopim live chat.

During the Facebook Developer Conference Zendesk also showcased a chatbot for Facebook Messenger implemented within Spring, a digital shopping platform available on mobile and web.  Spring is to-date the first business to begin blending automated messages from chatbots on the Facebook Messenger platform with human interactions powered by Zendesk, to enrich the overall customer experience journey and assist clients in shopping directly through Facebook Messenger.

A Zendesk announcement accompanying these presentations described how, “In building the [Facebook] Messenger integration into Zopim last year, we found consumer behaviour on messaging and live chat to be very different.  Live chat is like talking to an attentive assistant in a store.  It’s fantastic at the point of purchase because a session of quick-fire exchanges can result in a purchase, and the customer can leave the store.  This is why live chat software is optimised for an agent to handle a handful of live conversations.

But messaging and its mobile-first nature introduces a new paradigm.  Messaging is perfect for multi-taskers.  Customers fire off messages and move onto other tasks, knowing that they won’t miss the response.  There is no ‘on-hold’ anxiety to get an answer instantly.  With messaging, we have found that an agent can be assigned many more conversations, and only a small percentage of those conversations will be live at any point.”

In a way, the emergence of chatbots does not only enhance application functionality, but also somewhat tampers the relationship between man and machine.  A recent article in the Guardian newspaper described how a weather chatbot had “…its own pre-programmed, passive-aggressive personality.  When you turn off its suggested function of sending you a chat with the day’s weather every morning at 7am, it replies: “Tired of me pinging you super useful info every morning? Well, fine! Just let me know when you miss me 😉.”  In a world of seemingly growing social disconnect but social media connect, it’s seems it’s good to ‘talk.’

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