October 22, 2018
Viktoriya Polyarush Social Media Coordinator, an avid reader with the passion for technology.

Over the past two years, chatbots — or technology-fueled virtual assistants — have taken the world by storm.

At first, chatbots were merely a computer-based service that could undertake various customer service tasks. And in that regard, they were a welcome leap forward.

But, in recent years, chatbots, or “bots” for short, have morphed into exceptionally intelligent computer programs able to assist companies with essential tasks ranging from marketing and human resources functions to sales efforts.

However, while these technology assistants have already made their mark in the business world, many people still don’t fully understand their capabilities, limitations and many functionalities. That’s the reason behind this basic guide: to highlight the different types of chatbots, how they work and how you can create your own artificial intelligence (AI)-powered virtual assistant. So, without further ado, let’s learn about … chatbots.

The basics

What are chatbots? Chatbots are computer programs capable of conducting conversations by text and auditory communication. Programs simulate how a human conversation would proceed. Chatbots can include text — the response you received to your customer service inquiry — as well as audio and video. Though chatbots are also robots, there’s no three-dimensional physical presence equivalent to the sci-fi variety or to factory or police robots. Instead, chatbots’ power stems from either set scripts (a technology known as “rules”), or artificial intelligence.

Regardless of their power source, bots can perform a wide variety of tasks without human help. Siri and Alexa are well-known examples of virtual bots; but you’ve also likely encountered customer-service chatbots in a pop-up chat window on your favorite ecommerce site. (See those three dots and the appearance of someone typing? That’s probably a bot.)

So, whether you’re making a restaurant reservation for this weekend, scheduling next week’s calendar event or sending out personalized promotions to your customers, chatbots can free you from these mundane tasks. They offer practically unlimited opportunities for better and faster customer service, and for the quick, easy accomplishment of tasks.

Where do you obtain a chatbot? A chatbot can be easily created through various means, whether you build the bot yourself using your coding knowledge or hire someone to build it for you. Today, it’s easier than ever to add a bot to your website, and many companies out there are ready to build you an excellent bot for less cost than you might  think.

The most important factor here is that chatbots can simulate human-like conversations (text or audio) with your customers. Thanks to the technology that powers them, virtual assistants can communicate in natural language and even speak multiple languages, sometimes without the recipient even realizing it. Because of their versatility, chatbots have been integrated into a variety of business models, allowing them to address many business pain points.

A brief history of chatbots

Chatbots aren’t new. In fact, they first appeared as far back as 1966, at the debut of Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA — a robot able to mimic human conversation by matching user prompts to scripted responses. In 1972, PARRY was created by Stanford’s Kenneth Colby, followed by Jabberwacky in 1988, by Britain’s Rollo Carpenter. Finally, there was ALICE in 1995.

ALICE, which stands for Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity, was the first natural language-processing (NLP) chatbot. Richard Wallace’s ALICE bot was so strong that it went on to win the Loebner Prize.

The two main forms chatbots take

While customer service is the widest use of these intelligent machines, today’s versions come in two forms:

Rule-based chatbots. Rule-based or “scripted” chatbots are still out there, but they’re losing popularity because of their AI-powered counterparts. Rule-based bots can answer questions based on a specific script with which they’ve been programmed to communicate. These scripts can be very complex or extremely simple, but the choice is up to the creator.

Artificial intelligence-powered chatbots. Chatbots powered by AI, natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning, on the other hand, have the ability to learn as they communicate. This means that every interaction they have makes them progressively more intelligent.

Not only are they empowered by conversations with humans, but chatbots that use AI to communicate are integrated with analytical platforms and application programming interfaces (APIs) which talk to the chatbot’s technology; that in turn provides the end user with the answers to his or her questions.

Why chatbots are important

You may be thinking, “What’s the big deal with chatbots?” The answer is that consumers today are using social media messaging applications like Facebook Messenger more than they are social networks. Companies that want to stay ahead of the curve should take note, as those messaging applications are now the preferred communication method instead of phone calls, text messages and emails.

In short, you need to focus your marketing efforts on those areas of the digital realm where your audiences are most likely to be — inside messaging apps.