The Bots Are Coming, and Fast

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Bots, those speech-enabled automated software applications, are quickly becoming consumers’ preferred gateway to the web, companies, services, and applications.

“In the 30 years that I have been in the industry, bots are the technology that has taken hold the fastest,” proclaims Liz Osborn, vice president of product marketing at [24]7, a customer experience software and services company.

Now, as the technology develops at an alarming pace, it has tremendous potential to alter the way companies and their customers interact. These intelligent software components are already starting to supplement, mimic, and, in some cases, completely replace traditional interactive voice response (IVR) systems. Speech technology professionals need to understand what bots are and why they are gaining traction so quickly.

Bots, actually, are not new. In fact, the technology has been available since the 1980s, according to Tobias Goebel, director of emerging technologies at Aspect Software. Bots are an offshoot of the artificial intelligence (AI) movement (see the sidebar on page 30) that technologists have been talking about for decades.

Like AI, bots are horizontal tools—broad suites of software that can be integrated into any application. They are much different from vertical solutions, like those used for payroll, for instance, which are focused on specific functions. As such, bots have a virtually limitless range of potential uses.

That is why research firm Tractica recently predicted a fourfold increase in the use of intelligent virtual digital assistants, virtual agents, and chatbots in the next five years. It expects the number of people globally who actively use bot technology to grow from 390 million today to 1.8 billion by 2021. The number of business users worldwide will grow from 155 million today to 843 million by 2021, the firm also predicts.

So why all of the buzz lately? “In the past three to four years, a number of technology advances have helped businesses begin to use [bots] to improve their operations,” says Mark Beccue, principal analyst at Tractica. Part of the reason, he explains, is that computer infrastructure has gradually become more sophisticated and capable of supporting more demanding applications, more powerful hardware, lightning-quick networks, and oodles of data.

That has enabled bots to fall into place as next-generation online chat apps, improved IVR solutions, or automated FAQ web links. In all of these cases, companies get them to work by writing scriptlike software that walks customers through repetitive interactions, such as entering their names and addresses in required fields. And, like IVRs, bots can present consumers with an interface for entering data and then, based on what they’ve entered, route interactions to the right person or system capable of addressing the issue. They can also provide product suggestions, schedule meetings, or send follow-up email to customers.

Because bots can automate such mundane tasks, which previously required salaried employees to handle, they present companies with a huge cost-saving opportunity as well.

Another benefit of bots is that they provide consumers with more input options. This is particularly appealing to younger generations that prefer digital interactions over phone calls.

Taking the First Steps

While bots’ potential impact is significant, the technology is still very much in the embryonic stages of development. Deployment has been slow so far, because building bots is a complex task and requires a lot of infrastructure software to be put into place beforehand, according to Beccue. “Bot deployment cycles can be long,” he says.

In essence, for bots to perform their function, the necessary front-end applications that consumers use, the back-end systems that house the company data needed to perform the required tasks, and the bots that link them all need to be integrated.

The first element, the user interface, is the software that is housed on various systems (smartphones, tablets, laptops, PCs, and IVRs) and provides the consumer with an entry point into the system. Just three years ago, native speech recognition was shipped as a standard component in only 45 percent of all mobile devices, according to Tractica data. Today, very few mobile devices come without it. Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google Now are just a few of these types of voice interfaces.

This new point of entry also applies to a number of apps. Facebook made waves in this area in April 2016 when it launched a bot software ecosystem, enabling third-party developers to build apps that the approximately 1 billion Facebook Messenger users worldwide could access. More than 11,000 developers flocked to the Facebook platform in the first three months. And competition to Facebook Messenger has come from many directions, with suppliers like Kik, Microsoft Skype, and Slack also building messaging bots.

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