Artificial Intelligence a concept everyone is familiar with. And even if your only experience of AI is from watching films, you’ll have no trouble understanding bots. Bots are big news right now, with Facebook, Skype and a number of other services rolling out these assistants as you read this.

Bots summary:

  • In this context bots are computer assistants
  • They will appear in your favourite messaging app including Facebook Messenger and Skype
  • You will use them for booking flights, hotels, ordering takeaway and much, much more
  • Messaging apps will get a lot more features soon, such as money transfers

Update March 2017: In a recent Facebook blog titled Building Global Community, Mark Zuckerberg outlined – among other things – that Facebook is using AI to detect when users post comments which could indicate they are suicidal. Previously, the system relied upon other users reporting posts they considered to contain suicidal thoughts. Now, Facebook’s review team will look at posts flagged by the AI system, and contact the user to offer support.

What is a bot?

The word bot is used to mean several different things. Gamers understand bots as AI characters in a game, while botnets are groups of hijacked computers which cyber criminals use for various tasks such as sending out millions of spam emails or even to attack and attempt to take down websites.

The bots we’re talking about here are essentially virtual assistants, much like Siri and Cortana. Only the latest generation of bots communicate via text rather than speech. Cortana already does this, both on Windows Phone and in Windows 10.

What are bots? CortanaBot history

Bots aren’t new. Far from it. Joseph Weizenbaum wrote a ‘bot’ called ELIZA in 1966 which grew to immense popularity. The program simulated a Rogerian therapist and you could ‘talk’ to it by typing, and it would respond in the way a therapist would with answers such as “How does that make you feel?”

It appeared to pass the Turing Test – a test in which humans had to decide if the responses on screen were from a human or a computer – but in reality it lacked intelligence and would fail the test under most conditions. It wasn’t until 2014 when Eugene Goostman, a program which simulates a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy was claimed to pass it (some disputed this claim).

Modern bots

The new bots are much like ELIZA and Eugene Goostman in that you can chat to them – by typing – and they will respond with sensible, intelligent answers. While mere chatbots exist (and have fooled many a human) the next generation will act more like personal assistants, doing everything from handling your Amazon returns to booking flights and ordering your lunch.

They go beyond the capabilities of Siri and Google Now, although in many respects they are similar. At a basic level, both ‘services’ are intelligent, but they’re a million miles from being as capable as a system like Jarvis in Iron Man. Jarvis, of course, doesn’t really exist (Mark Zuckerberg has declared that his personal challenge for 2016 is to build a Jarvis of sorts).

It appears that Zuckerberg has been inspired partly by the work Facebook has done with bots in Messenger. Facebook M is currently being trialled by a small group of people in California, but will no doubt soon be appearing in everyone’s Messenger app. It will have many of the capabilities we’ve mentioned: it can answer questions like Siri can, find a suitable birthday present for your daughter and book a table at a restaurant, but it will also be powered by real people who can assist when the AI technology reaches its limits.