While there’s something anachronistic about the name (think mid 90’s chatrooms and 1950’s sci- fi), chatbots combine the interactive conversational aspects of a text messaging application with the depth of knowledge available on a website.
Chatbots are familiar to anyone who’s used an Interactive Voice Response or IVR system when placing a call to just about any company these days - “please say or enter your account number” and so on. The difference is that artificial intelligence or the application’s ability to understand natural language when combined with so called machine learning, or the ability to adapt and improve responses based on experience, are opening up a whole way of communicating. In other words, the more you interact with a bot the better it is able to answer your questions. Today’s digital assistants are much brighter than those sophisticated call trees of the past and they are only going to get smarter.
How They Work
Bots recognize words or phrases provided in either the spoken or typed question and then search for the output that most closely corresponded to it in order to continue the conversation. Bots can be used to carry out transactions, answer questions and capture customer feedback. These abilities are embedded in virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa, Cortana and OK Google and improve with continued use. In addition to virtual assistants, bots can be found on most company sites and their corresponding apps, retail shopping sites and instant messaging apps including Facebook Messenger. “Non-assistant applications include chatbots used for entertainment purposes, for research, and social bots which promote a particular product, candidate, or issue.”*
Rise of the bots
It’s not just the improvements in chatbots that account for the quick ascent. More individuals are spending time on chat sites as opposed to corporate websites and social media (see chart). And, because chatbots converse in a more natural way, capturing information and responding intelligently, users experience a higher level of engagement without ever picking up the phone.
Friend a Bot
The potential for chatbots on college campuses is unprecedented. Boasting a tech savvy population of students, each carrying a smartphone, today’s young people have been raised on messaging apps like What’sApp, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and SnapChat. The ability to easily engage with an Admissions or Financial Aid bot, or signing up for classes and updating personal information, will feel just like texting mom or dad. Chatbots offer a better experience because they behave more like a human than a machine. And because they learn from experience, their performance only gets better.
Two Kinds of Chatbots
Some chatbots can be programmed to answer specific questions only. This is done by referring to a static database of answers and lacks the machine learning capability. Bots that possess machine learning make real time improvements the more they engage with users. These smart bots can be manipulated by end users as demonstrated recently by Microsoft’s Tay AI which began spouting Nazi rhetoric once users discovered a “repeat after me”** functionality that allowed users to literally put their words in the bot’s mouth.
Chatbots may seem unfamiliar now. Chances are you’ve already engaged with a bot and didn’t even know it. That’s the beauty. Whether you’re speaking to it or typing text, these smart assistants can answer your questions, place your order, or update your information in a seamless way that emails, websites and apps have simply not been able to do.
Millennials brought social media to campus, Generation Z will expect chatbots to notify them of their acceptance, help them navigate the campus, choose their courses and maintain an ongoing relationship with them once they become alumni.
The Guardian: What is a chat bot, and should I be using one?
Botpress: The Whats & Why of Chatbots
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