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The dark side of the coming chatbot revolution

Mike Elgan | Jan. 4, 2016
For many, messaging app-based chatbots will replace search engines and virtual assistants. And friends.

artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence is coming to a messaging app near you.

Google has been working on a messaging-based chat bot for a year, according to The Wall Street Journal. The newspaper described the service as a Google Now-like virtual assistant that you could send messages to and get the answers back as messages.

It's not clear whether this service would be available within Google's Hangouts or Messenger service, whether it could be available on other platforms, such as over SMS, or whether it would be a new messaging service. One source told the Journal that Google would open up its chatbot as an extensible platform, which means other companies could build special-purpose chatbots based on Google's data.

The Journal had no information about a launch date or name for the service, but did say the project is being headed by longtime Googler, Nick Fox.

An A.I. chatbot makes sense for Google. Consumers are increasingly going mobile and searching (pun intended) for an alternative to search. Current alternatives, such as Google's own Google Now or its competitors -- Siri, Cortana, Alexa and others -- all suffer from imperfect voice recognition. And in their state of evolution, they can be unsatisfying to use.

John Underkoffler, the CEO of Oblong Industries (and creator of the Minority Report and Iron Man user interfaces), told me recently that "we haven't built a good feedback system yet" (for voice assistants) that keeps you informed in real time about how well the system is understanding you. Virtual assistants also require a conscious decision to stop doing the current task and actively seek out the virtual assistant, which is a reflex many users haven't developed.

Meanwhile, millions of online users, who used to seek out data on search engines like Google Search, and more recently on social networks like Facebook, are now moving to messaging apps, such as Facebook's WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, Viber, Telegram, WeChat and many others. The habit or impulse to reach out to people on messaging apps, and to respond to incoming messages through notifications, is growing stronger.

Google doesn't have the most popular social network or messaging apps, but it does have the best and most popular search engine. Also: Many people consider Google Now to be the best virtual assistant. Building A.I. virtual assistance into a messaging platform makes a world of sense for Google. It helps the company with both their search engine exodus problem and the messaging app nonpopularity problem.

Of course, the new Google chatbot solves Google's problems only if it succeeds. To succeed, Google needs to win users from a wide range of alternatives, including and especially Facebook's.

 

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