When it comes to AI, chatbots are probably the most ubiquitous and most used artificial intelligence application after smart speakers (like Amazon Alexa and Google Home) and virtual assistants (such as Microsoft’s Cortana or Apple’s Siri).
Many of us probably interact with a chatbot one way or another several times a week, and during the time of the pandemic, the use is only growing.
Earlier this year Business Insider published a report suggesting that the chatbot market growth was likely to be around 30%, and could grow to a valuation of $9.4 billion by 2024.
I would dare say that if that study were to be conducted again now, the growth rate would be higher. Why? Well, chat bots help reduce the strain on a company’s call centres, whilst providing 24 x 7 service, support and reassurance to customers and in today’s world, call centres are shrinking, the demand is growing and everyone is much more in need of information and reassurance.
In the last few days alone I have interacted with chatbots for an airline, my bank, a software platform I use to manage this publication, my local council, Facebook Marketplace and a couple of others.
But before we go any further, let’s take a quick look at what is a chatbot?
What is a chatbot?
Chat bots are computer programmes that enable human beings to interact with digital services using messages and prompts. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to a chatbot, they can be as simple as a question and answer or prompt-led conversation, all the way through to a chatbot that learns and predicts the user intent using machine learning and AI.
Simple ChatBot Example
These tend to be focused on directing a user to a specific piece of content on a website, and are often called a sign-posting bot. These are rules-based, and operate like this “if the user visits this page, show them this, if they click that take them there”.
Hubspot’s entry level chatbot is a great example of this.
More Complex Chatbot Example
At the other end of the spectrum, chatbots are being used with very sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms to understand, adapt, learn and predict trends, needs or behaviour.
Sensely is a medical chatbot that claims to be able not just to understand and take part in a conversation with a patient, but to diagnose conditions, too.
The award for “the most out of this world” chatbot has to go to CIMON, the IBM powered robot that’s helping keep the astronauts safe and sane in space
The most fundamental application of AI in a chatbot is in what’s called Natural Language Processing (NLP). The idea here is that a machine needs to be able to understand what we really mean from the weird and wonderful things we might utter to it. This is not easy, as I am often reminded when my Amazon Echo completely misunderstands what I am asking it for.
It may not be easy, but things have come a very long way in a very short time recently, so whether you’re typing or speaking to a chatbot, many systems have got incredibly good at not just understanding what you’re trying to ask, but also in giving a meaningful and useful response.
Some have even gone on to pass various Turing Tests (click for meaning). Mitsuku is currently the world’s leading chatbot from that perspective. Visit pandorabots.com/mitsuku/ to get lost in a conversation with a robot.
Where will you find a chatbot?
Most people think of chatbots as the little pop up icon in the bottom of a website, but chatbots can exist in any place a conversation is taking place with a user. This includes Facebook, WhatsApp, in other mobile phone apps, through smart speakers and in in-car-entertainment systems.
One of the most advanced implementations I have seen is the Jarvis demonstration from NVIDIA, which includes sensory fusion to understand more about what is being asked, by whom.
How are chatbots being used during the COVID-19 crisis?
I am very happy to have partnered with the chatbot company We Build Bots (wbb.ai) to help our local authority provide a better service to the local citizens. During this project we’ve been looking at making it easier and more intuitive for the general public to find out the information they need about various council services, including waste, recycling, roads, highways and parking.
We Build Bots have built an extremely good reputation in the public sector, winning numerous awards and accolades for their multi-lingual platform. Check out their LinkedIn page for more.We’ve been working on the project for a few months now, collecting requirements, understanding what questions are normally asked by the locals, and building out the chatbot to integrate with real-time data sources.
At the time of writing there’s still a bit more work to go before the full implementation is launched, but as the pandemic took hold of the UK, our local council asked whether the WBB platform could be used to help answer the growing call volume the council was experiencing regarding COVID-19.
COVID-19 Local Authority Chatbot with West Berkshire Council
Within days, WBB was able to implement a chatbot for West Berkshire council that helped them answer a vast majority of local citizen questions and concerns. In fact, the chatbot is currently serving more than 250 users per day, and growing.
This saves the council’s call centres significant amount of time, which can then be used to assist the more vulnerable or answer the more difficult questions that require a higher degree of human involvement.
WBB and West Berkshire recently conducted a webinar for other local government authorities to understand how to implement a COVID-19 chatbot, get in touch directly with WBB or via the form below to find out more and get a recording of that.