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What’s a Chatbot (And Why Do I Need to Know)? Part 1 by Oisín McGann

Article by Writing IE Admin © 19 September 2017 Oisín McGann .
Posted in the Magazine ( · News for Writers · The Big Idea ).

First, a disclaimer: while this two-part article is about a form of technology, I won’t be getting very technical. I’m a writer and illustrator, I’m absolutely not a programmer, my interest lies in the relationships we have with technology, so I’ll be keeping this as simple as possible . . . simpler, even.

Before the Chatbots, There Were the Bots

Before I get talking about the more sophisticated chatbots, I want to take a look at what a ‘bot’ is, and why it matters to anyone working in, or interested in, publishing – which includes you, if you’ve found yourself on Writing.ie. If you go looking for one simple definition, you’re going to struggle to find one, as they come in a myriad of shapes, sizes and functions. A shortened form of ‘software robot’ a bot is basically a piece of software that acts as an assistant, an agent on behalf of its user.

If you spend any time online – and here you are now – then you’ll already have been using them for years.

They’re everywhere, a cohesive part of the services you use online, in search engines and social media, on websites and even in your own computer or phone. Your Google feed is ranked by bots; non-player characters in games can be run by bots; your ‘If-you-liked-that-you’ll-like-this’ suggestions on Amazon and Netflix are provided by bots. These unthinking strings of code are having more influence on the choices of your potential readers than any reviewer out there. Wikipedia, that essential, ever-popular but never-quite-trusted research tool, could not manage its 40,000,000 pages without using bots.

Like a software equivalent of one of those robot vacuum cleaners, these things get switched on and set to the kind of boring, repetitive, time-intensive tasks that humans don’t want to do, or can’t spare the time – and more often than not, the bots do it much faster and more efficiently (unlike robot vacuum cleaners). While the idea of them might be distasteful to some, it’s important to remember they’re just a tool. With some exceptions, they don’t take work or human contact away from humans; they add versatility and adaptability to the kinds of software that billions of people use every day.

One of the simplest and most prevalent form of bots are the ‘crawlers’ or ‘scrapers’, used by search engines to comb the web for data – though their function can be as malicious as it is useful. Designed to trawl for information, they are responsible for a huge proportion of traffic on the web – in 2016, bots as a whole represented over fifty percent. Of those, more than half were ‘bad bots’; scrapers, spammers, impersonators, as well as hackers feeling around looking for weaknesses. The rest, however, were just worker bees doing their job.

Bots, Chatbots and the Publishing World

There is a ruthless, ongoing arms race for data taking place out there affecting competition in business in a huge way, particularly in relation to pricing. Your average bookshop might adjust its prices every week or two – often much less frequently on the bulk of its titles. For the big online retailers, this is an entirely different process; operating more like an ecosystem than a stocktake, sometimes updating several times a day. Bots are used not only to constantly adjust prices across a business’s own site, but also to monitor to their competitor’s prices. In an environment where often the only difference between one seller and another is price, even a few cents can make a difference between making a sale or not. One of the biggest challenges facing publishing today is the race-to-the-bottom discounting, but to understand what’s driving it, you have to understand the online market and the value of up-to-the-minute information.

Fending off unwanted bots trying to hoover up your site’s data is a serious matter. Those ‘CAPTCHA’ tests, (an acronym for ‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart’), which use pictures of wonky type, are designed for just this purpose – most bots can’t read that stuff.

To use the book industry’s, and indeed the world’s, biggest online retailer as an excellent illustration of this information arms race, Reuters recently reported on an event where the bots that Walmart was using to track Amazon’s prices found themselves blocked from Amazon’s site. This was a major problem for them, and was a demonstration of just how sophisticated Amazon has become in its use of these software agents. But the company has to be; about a third of the traffic on most online retail sites is composed of bots – on Amazon, it can be close to 80%.

In case you’re wondering if this early manifestation of artificial intelligence will mark a Skynet-like end of the internet and lead to an eventual apocalypse, it’s worth pointing out once again that these things are tools which plebs like you and I are already using to cope with the colossal amount of information that’s been made available to us. We simply wouldn’t be able to manage without them. And as the complexity of that access increases, so too does our need for more natural, more intuitive interaction with that information. There are simply too much data and too many options to deal with.

This is where chatbots come in.

While a normal app allows you to perform a particular function, a chatbot is an application that serves as a software agent, but can also work from a prepared script, or sometimes even create real dialogue, in order to respond to a user’s needs. Some can speak, others use text. Most importantly, chatbots are intended to be able to comprehend normal language, to make interacting with them easier and more intuitive. Most of the chatbots available to us are provided by big corporations through the platforms we use, but as the lines blur between bots and the apps we use every day, more people and organisations are starting to create their own. In the world of publishing, the vast majority of businesses are small, with often just a few people and limited budgets, but an increasing need to interact with customers online.

For those who want to move away from the impersonal and inherently limited interaction of drop-down menus, online forms and auto-attendants, companies like Chatty People or Smooch offer the chance for anyone to create bots from scratch; some like Snatchbot offer this for free, and without the need to do any coding, customising these tools to offer a far more user-friendly and versatile interaction online. A technology that was originally a domain restricted to those who could code, is now available to consumers like you and me. ‘Bot Stores’ are expected to be the next big thing, possibly replacing app stores as the favoured means of getting things done online.

The biggest and most successful tech companies in the world consider this technology to be the future of blending artificial intelligence with everyday life, but its very nature is that it’s focussed on the user’s experience – your experience – rather than the functions of a computer or any given application. This offers intriguing possibilities, not just for business, but also for readers and writers.

I’ll be writing more about that in the next post.

(c) Oisín McGann

Oisín McGann is a writer and illustrator who has produced dozens of books and short stories for all ages of reader and has performed thousands of children’s sessions in schools, libraries and festivals. He is the author of the Mad Grandad books, the Forbidden Files and novels such as Rat Runners, The Gods and Their Machines and The Wildenstern Saga. He served on the board of Children’s Books Ireland for seven years and is a winner of the European Science Fiction Society Award, the Bisto Book of the Year Merit Award and has been shortlisted for numerous other awards, including the Waterstones Childrens’ Book Prize in the UK, le Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire in France and Locus Magazine’s Best First Novel Award in the US.

Order Oisín’s books online here.