What in the World Are Bots?

Microsoft and Facebook have announced big bets on them. Just what in the world are bots, and will they really be the next big thing?

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Microsoft and Facebook have announced big bets on them. Just what in the world are bots, and will they really be the next big thing?
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Bots in the real world

Where can you get bots to do your bidding?


Telegram is a free encrypted messaging app. In mid–2015, they launched a bot platform, and recently released a major 2.0 update. On their website, Telegram cheekily writes that bots can send customized news, integrate with external services like YouTube, and do “ … virtually anything else. Except for dishes — bots are terrible at doing the dishes.”


So why are bots suddenly being pushed to the limelight? There are a few reasons.

1. Artificial intelligence is getting smarter

AI has been getting better and better at recognizing and imitating human language in recent years, which is crucial in making bots work.

2. Facebook and Microsoft really want a platform

While Apple and Google have essentially won the mobile platform wars, neither Facebook nor Microsoft have a real slice of that pie. That’s one reason why they’ve gone all in and released APIs (application programming interfaces) for developers to build bots, betting big on what they see is the next platform to conquer: messaging.

3. Messaging apps are insanely popular

More than 2.5 billion people have at least one messaging app installed on their smartphone — we bet you do too. That’s an instant gateway to a real person on the other end of the line, who can be converted into a paying customer.

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‘Bots’ are the trending hashtags now, thanks to major endorsements at the recent Microsoft Build and Facebook F8 developer conferences.

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Slack is a messaging platform for work, with nearly 2 milion daily active users. Back in 2015, Slack launched the Slack App Directory with a catalog of 150 chat bots and Slack integrations. If you want a Slack bot for it, you could probably find it — there are Slack bots to help you schedule meetings, track team productivity and provide analytics.

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Startup x.ai is building a virtual assistant that’s really good at one thing: scheduling meetings. When you get a meeting invite, just CC Amy, your personal x.ai bot. She will then email with your guests to find the best times and locations for a meeting. After all the back and forth is done, you’ll get a meeting invite in your inbox.

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But bots aren’t new, and they’ve actually been around for a while now. A bot is simply a software app that runs automated tasks over the Internet. For example, Google uses bots (also known as the Googlebot) to crawl through billions of websites to add to Google’s search index.

What Microsoft and Facebook are going on about are a specific kind of bot, a chatbot, which simulates conversations to help you get things done inside messaging apps. A ‘conversational user interface,’ if you like. More Jarvis from the movie Iron Man, less Windows.

For example, instead of ordering a pizza through a website, you could message the restaurant and order something through a back-and-forth conversation with a bot. A more advanced bot can become a single-task virtual assistant, one could help you schedule a meeting, for example, by having its own conversations with your calendar app and the other parties for you. 


Nobody knows for sure if bots will really be the next big thing. But there’s one country where bots — and messaging — are having great success. And it’s only the country with the most number of citizens in the world.

In China, messaging apps have expanded to become much more than just a place to chat. WeChat users in China can use the app to make hotel reservations, order food, buy movie tickets, and shop.

At the beginning, companies staffed their WeChat channels with humans to make the sale. Now, many are being replaced with chatbots. That’s a big market for these bots, when you consider that WeChat has one billion active users, with more than 20 million official accounts by businesses or organizations, and in 2015 was valued by HSBC at US$83.6 billion.

This is what Facebook hopes its developers will turn Messenger into, by releasing the Messenger Platform with open APIs. The company imagines a future where you can order flowers, ask about the weather and book hotels through ‘talking’ with a chatbot on Messenger. Qi Lu, Executive Vice President of Microsoft’s Applications and Services Group, told Bloomberg that he became serious about bots during a visit to China, where he watched how students and customers used their smartphones.

It was Lu who convinced Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, of bots’ strategic potential. If the popularity of bots for the rest of the world remains an open question, China, at least, has become a convincing proof of concept. Messaging is the next big platform war, and whoever owns that platform — and the tools to build the bots that make the sales — can stand to reap big profits in the future to come.

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