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Slack and the search for the killer bot, while Facebook helps companies build their own Messenger bots, by the Verge

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2016 marks the search for the killer bot. Slack is one of the companies searching:

"Hi, Slackbot here!" So begins every user’s experience of Slack. Opened to the public in February of 2014, Slack makes an app for desktop and mobile devices that lets you send instant messages to your co-workers. Because most businesses have never communicated in this way, Slack took it upon itself to teach them how, using a friendly script named Slackbot.

"To make things easier for your teammates, I can set up a few personal details for you," Slackbot tells you, in a private message, when you first sign on. It goes on to ask for your last name, a photo, and your phone number. All the bot is doing is building a simple profile for you. But in the process, it teaches you how Slack works.

And because Slack was built with external services in mind, it’s easy for developers to start building bots of their own. XOXCO started with Lunchbot. In time, though, the tools built for Slack have grown much more powerful — one of the reasons why Slack’s base of daily active users doubled in the second half of 2015.

On one hand, Slack is a business tool — its potential audience looks much smaller than say, Facebook M, a virtual assistant inside Messenger that the social network could someday make available to more than 1 billion people. But Slack could become at least as important to productivity as Microsoft Office once was — and the bots that are built there could very well influence bots built everywhere else.

Last month, Slack announced an $80 million fund to invest in companies that build apps that run on top of Slack. In its announcement, Slack showcased bots: there was Howdy, the meeting-running app from Brown’s Lunchbot team; Birdly, which makes filing expense reports conversational; and Awesome, which uses natural language processing to summarize the Slack discussions you missed while you were away.

Along with the fund, Slack announced BotKit, a tool that Howdy built for building other bots. It takes a set of tools and information useful to almost any bot — that "yeah" and "yup" and "yep" can all stand in for "yes," say — and packages them together.

Brown is a Star Wars fan — on the day we meet, he is wearing socks branded with the logo of the Rebel alliance — and he likens Slackbots to the astromechs of the Star Wars universe. BotKit will build generic bot skeletons; developers will infuse them knowledge, memory, and personality. "There are R2 units, and there’s R2-D2," Brown says. "He’s different from the other units because of what he learned along the way." At the same time, Slackbots aren’t pursuing true artificial intelligence — not yet, anyway. "We’re not trying to reach consciousness here," Brown says. "We’re just trying to expose certain functionality through language."


The killer app for bots is to serve humans in a way that they seem like humans.

If the smart money has only recently turned to bots, the technology itself has a long history dating back to Alan Turing.

In a landmark 1950 paper, computer scientist Alan Turing proposed a test to determine whether it was possible for machines to mimic human intelligence: analyzing a text-based conversation between a computer and a person, could an observer determine which was which? Any bot that sufficiently confused the human evaluator could be said to pass the test.

A bot passed the Turing test for the first time in 1966. ELIZA was a program that reacted to users’ responses to its scripts; most famously, it mimicked a psychotherapist. ELIZA would ask you to describe your problem, scan your response for keywords, and formulate an appropriate response.

Today we call lots of things "bots." There are bots that crawl the web to make it searchable; bots that control the behavior of characters in video games; "botnets" of computers that have been organized by hackers to email spam or defraud advertisers or launch denial-of-service attacks on websites. But ELIZA pointed toward the emergence of one particular kind of bot: a virtual assistant that you access through text.

Bots bubbled up again in 2001, when a company named ActiveBuddy introduced SmarterChild: an ELIZA-style chatterbot inside AOL Instant Messenger. You could ask SmarterChild to give you the news, weather, or movie times, among other kinds of information. Thirty million people added SmarterChild to their Instant Messengers.

But AIM eventually declined, along with AOL, and bots like SmarterChild and GooglyMinotaur went with it. In the meantime, Google emerged as the primary access point for every piece of information we desired. For almost a decade, the bots disappeared.

Bots are the new apps.

Enter the message bots. As 2016 dawns, there’s a sense in Silicon Valley that the decades-old fantasy of a true digital assistant is due to roar back into the mainstream. If the trend in past years has been assistants powered by voice — Siri, Alexa, Cortana — in 2016 the focus is shifting to text. And if the bots come, as industry insiders are betting they will, there will be casualties: with artificial intelligence doing the searching for us, Google may see fewer queries. Our AI-powered assistants will manage more and more of our digital activities, eventually diminishing the importance of individual, siloed apps, and the app stores that sell them. Many websites could come to feel as outdated as GeoCities pages — and some companies might ditch them entirely. Nearly all of the information they provide can be fed into a bot and delivered via messaging apps.


"Messaging is going to be the interface — or the anti-interface — of the next phase of the internet," says Robin Chan, CEO of Operator, an app that uses a mix of artificial intelligence and human workers to let you shop through text-based conversations. "This is such a mega-trend that almost every large application is moving toward this."

Just this week, Mark Zuckerberg, announced he would spend 2016 building an Iron Man-style artificial intelligence to help him run his household and help him with work. He had been inspired, he said, by the work his team is doing on Facebook Messenger — and its quest to build an "AI to answer any question you have."

Mobile apps are dead. Bots are the new way to get consumers to interact with your brand. 

Then came the mobile device. Today there are more than 1.5 million apps on iOS, and 1.6 million on Android. The apps have given rise to a host of new services: for hailing rides or for ordering takeout, for booking travel, or for messaging co-workers.

In the desktop era, the glue that bound everything together was the search engine, routing us from Wikipedia to Orbitz to Priceline to Yelp. In the mobile era, that glue is the application programming interface — the API — a bit of software that allows apps to talk to each other. It’s an API that lets you upload a photo from your phone to Facebook, or order an Uber from the Google Maps app.

But for developers, getting us to download their apps is increasingly difficult and expensive. Outside of games, we spend the vast majority of our time in apps built by Facebook and Google: they make eight of the 10 most-used apps, according to ComScore. To anyone paying attention, it’s becoming apparent that the golden age of apps is coming to a close.

But the bot makers say the mobile era has produced another big opportunity: a meta-app, or a layer that links everything together. To many, the interface for that app looks a lot like SMS. Text messaging is the single most popular smartphone feature, according to a Pew Research report. "Text is often more comfortable even if it’s less convenient," investor Jonathan Libov wrote last year about the medium’s superiority to graphical and voice-based interfaces. "I believe comfort, not convenience, is the most important thing in software, and text is an incredibly comfortable medium. Text-based interaction is fast, fun, funny, flexible, intimate, descriptive and even consistent in ways that voice and user interface often are not. Always bet on text."

If "instant messaging" was once a niche behavior on desktop computers — used primarily by young people and, later, office workers — on mobile devices, text dominates. Asian mega-messengers like WeChat and Line have become giant portals in their own right, connecting users to businesses, on-demand services, games, and more. The effect of all this messaging is to make us feel suddenly comfortable with what Silicon Valley has taken to calling "conversational UIs" — user interfaces that you can access through text. User interfaces that scan for keywords and message you back.

User interfaces, in other words, that look a lot like ELIZA.


While some apps are starting at the dumber end of the bot spectrum, virtually everyone assumes bots will grow smarter over time. Operator is among those trying to speed up the process. The app, which is now in an invite-only beta, was founded by former Zynga executive Robin Chan and Uber co-founder Garrett Camp. Its aim: to be "the most exciting shopping app to come across your phone, ever."

"Uber brought you a car," Chan says. "We’ve always thought of [Operator] as another one-button journey. That’s the interface utopia that we’re striving to achieve." Open up Operator and you see a big blue button marked "send a request." Tap it, and you’ll see options for clothing, home decor, electronics, and a handful of other categories. (There’s also a catch-all "something else" button.) Pick one, and a bot will ask you a little bit about what you want. Some transactions can be handled entirely by the bot; others require human intervention in the form of contractors, which the company calls "operators."

Answering a series of questions about what kind of vacuum cleaner you’re looking for may not represent any real improvement over browsing Amazon listings, but the idea is that over time Operator’s software will improve, enabling the system to handle more and more queries without human intervention. "I think the only way you build this business is to build a network around humans and AI," Chan says, "refining your own combination to identify and aggregate consumer demand, and then automate as much as possible."

Facebook M, a virtual assistant that lives inside Messenger, is taking a similar approach. A base layer of machine learning automates as many tasks as possible, while contractors do things that machines can’t (make phone calls, argue on your behalf). It can order burritos for takeout; it can negotiate with Amazon customer service. For now, M is available only to a small number of users in California.

Magic, a company that aims to fulfill all of your requests via SMS message, is playing a similar game. So is Fin, co-founded by former Facebook executive Sam Lessin. The company is still in stealth mode, but according to a source who has access to the app, it functions similarly to M. Until recently, these services, like Google, were free to use. These apps sit at what business types call "the top of the sales funnel" — like Google, these messaging interfaces are places where customers can describe their intent. A business that fully understands your intent is a powerful partner to advertisers — and potentially a very lucrative enterprise. Little wonder, then, that Google itself is now reportedly building a smart, bot-based messenger of its own.

But that isn’t the only way to profit. This week Magic announced that it would begin charging $100 an hour for an advanced version of its services, to charter private helicopters, buy out-of-stock items, or even complete "an item on your ‘bucket list.’"

If they're good enough, bots will replace Web browsing and Googling the Web for answers. 

In time, says April Underwood, Slack’s VP of product, large enterprise software companies are going to invest in building smart bots. And smaller developers will be able to rely on those companies’ expertise in machine learning, so that they don’t all have to build their own engines for interpreting our texts. "I predict by the end of 2016, we’re going to see more really great examples of household-name companies creating great bot experiences," she says.

Others speculate that the promise of bots may be exaggerated: the most ambitious bots of the day, Operator and Facebook M, are still in closed beta. And for the most part, bots still depend on platforms they don’t control (iOS, SMS, Slack) — which some venture capitalists believe limits their growth potential.

Benedict Evans, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, told me that bots face a big challenge as they grow: the number and volume of human desires might always outpace our ability to write software that can address them. "You’re writing recipes," he says. "And how many recipes can you write?"

There’s an interface challenge, too. Give people a blank box, and they may not know what to ask for. "People try to bolt AI onto every new user interface model. But we don’t actually have HAL 9000, and may be 50 Nobel Prizes away from that," Evans posted on Twitter a few days after we spoke. "The problem with ‘no user interface’ is that, since you don’t really have HAL 9000 behind it, it’s almost as opaque as a DOS prompt."

But with Facebook and Google now investing in building virtual assistants, bot makers are betting that people will learn. "Inevitably, they’re going to get educated on this interface," says Operator’s Chan. And in many ways, they’re educated already. "The messaging interface feels very familiar to anyone who’s ever sent a text message," Slack’s Underwood says. You’ll text your boyfriend to pick up pizza on his way home — why wouldn’t you text the same thing to Facebook M?

The fact is, as investor Semil Shah has written, messaging has usurped the browseron mobile devices: it’s where most of our activity takes place. And once you’ve dethroned the browser, which empires will crumble? Could a new e-commerce channel rise to challenge Amazon? Could a bot outdo Google when it comes to understanding what you’re looking for?

Those companies are rich enough to buy up competitors before they become existential threats. But could you disrupt struggling Foursquare or Yelp with a conversational UI? (See Luka.) What about fitness apps? (See Lark.) What about banks? (See Digit, or Penny.) Which media companies are poised to succeed in a world where we consume more information through text messages? (In the bot era, Facebook’s Notify app looks a lot like a media company.) What does a media company look like when it optimizes for Slack?

Does Siri add a text interface? Does Alexa?

And the web? The web won’t die; mediums never do. That said: "It’s going to continue the erosion of the power of the home page, and even the power of the search bar," Brown says of bots’ rise. "The more software can notice the signals we’re sending it constantly, and deep-link us all the way to the answer, the less I have to go browse or search."

Of course, all this depends on a still-rickety infrastructure of services and machine learning actually coming together. It depends on an automated messaging interface that feels as trustworthy as a message to your boyfriend, rather than a mysterious DOS prompt. And it depends on bots living up to their billing as friendly, powerful, all-knowing assistants. "Building an AI that can be ‘everything to everyone’ is obviously appealing, yet we've seen pitches of this sort fail dozens of times over," says Maran Nelson, founder of Clara Labs, which is building a virtual assistant that schedules meetings. "The technical challenges to delivering on this promise at scale make this almost inconceivable."

For now, using Facebook M to order takeout burritos feels like a novelty. What will it take to feel like a superpower? Is it coming within reach, as so many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley now believe? Or are we still several advances in computer science from getting there?

Facebook is helping companies make Messenger bots.

Facebook and Uber unveiled a new feature that lets users summon a car from within Facebook's Messenger app. Users simply talk to an Uber bot as if it were a friend, and tell it where they want to be picked up and where they want to go. As far as user interfaces go, it's incredibly simply, and it seems likely we'll see more companies testing similar designs in the future. According to a report from TechCrunch, Facebook is giving select third parties access to development tools that let them build their own bots for Messenger, creating virtual chat partners that can automatically respond to customers' queries; returning information, images, and even processing payments.

It might sound like Facebook is unwisely encouraging competition to M, its own text-based virtual assistant, but the company has ongoing plans to turn its chat app into a platform for other brands and businesses. This model has already proved successful in Asia, where chat apps can handle everything from booking flights to managing bank accounts, and Facebook has been slowly adding to Messenger's capabilities over the past year or so, launching features that allow users to chat to businesses directly, exchanging information like delivery times and receipts.

If Facebook can help other companies build bots to handle these sorts of queries, then Messenger can become a home for all sorts of interactions. Brands won't have to spend money maintaining their own standalone apps, and Facebook gives users another reason to stay logged in. These new features will be a while coming (a Facebook product manager told TechCrunch that the company was still getting users "used to the idea that you can message more than just people on Messenger"), but in the future, all your online transactions could be carried out via conversations, not clicks.


Facebook says humans and bots are the new apps in 2016.

Facebook thinks it knows what the future of mobile computing is, and — surprise, surprise — it apparently looks a lot like Messenger. In a blog post celebrating the company's stand-alone chat app reaching the milestone of 800 million monthly users (making it the fastest growing app of 2015, according to Nielsen), Facebook's vice president of messaging David Marcus spells out a future in which everyone does business through Messenger conversations. Or, as a sub-heading in Marcus' post puts it: "Threads are the new apps."


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