2016: A CHAT BOT ODYSSEY

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Who would’ve guessed back in 2001 that, 15 years later, IBM would be a company struggling for relevancy, and Apple would grow into a global leviathan? For that matter, who would’ve thought even a few short years ago that the biggest taxi company in the world would be a software company (Uber) that doesn’t own any cars? Or the world leader in hotel accommodations (Airbnb) wouldn’t own a single property?

Things that seem cutting edge one day (remember how cool Amazon’s 1-Click ordering seemed once upon a time?) quickly become passé as the Next Big Thing erupts onto the scene. And turns a business model or two upside down.

For the past several years, we’ve had some fun in this space discussing Next Big Things that could help companies bolster their business and move beyond the screen, mouse and keyboard in their interactions with customers.

And now? What new technologies might materialize to amaze, dazzle and delight stakeholders and customers in the gaming and hospitality industry? After assembling a focus group comprised of Watson, Siri, Alexa and Cortana (and consulting my Magic 8 Ball for good measure), signs point to bigger and better consumer-facing artificial intelligence that can be summed up in two words: chat bots.

The Trend Is Your Friend

Companies looking to improve their engagement with customers (yes, that’s pretty much every brand on planet Earth) have taken note of two unmistakable trends. First, mobile messaging apps have been the fastest-growing online sector in the social space over the past 5 years. A report by Activate estimates a registered user base for MM apps totaling 3.6 billion users – roughly half the planet – by 2018. Second, mobile users spend most of their time using just a few apps. Savvy marketers are starting to look beyond their own branded apps to find ways of engaging people inside of the apps that occupy most of their time.

Enter chat bots. These artificial intelligence constructs are designed to integrate with messaging apps and turn them into platforms that brands can use to engage people in intuitive, highly conversational ways. Anybody with teenagers understands how quickly texting has become the preferred option for communicating. So why not embrace this New Order and, quite literally, make the trend your friend.

Turning Chat into Cha-Ching!

The future mobile experience will be one in which communication and commerce sync into a contextual, intelligent chat thread within messaging apps. The idea is to allow users to order a pizza, make a room reservation or shop directly from within the messaging app they’re already familiar with simply by sending a text message to the restaurant, hotel or store. Big brands are beginning to buy into chat bots in a big way. After investing heavily in developing their own mobile apps, companies are finding that customers don’t spend as much time using them as expected. Having to download apps, maintain them with updates, and switch between them all the time has created app fatigue among users, who are eager to embrace more streamlined solutions.

Sensing an opportunity to become the Next Big Thing, players in the messaging app space are opening up their code and allowing developers to create new services (bots) within these apps. Industry analysts are unanimous in the belief that every brand will need to have a bot in order to engage customers “where they live” (i.e., inside of an increasingly small number of apps on their smartphones). Most agree this is going to affect every brand and every business. And it’s going to happen quickly. Don’t-blinkor-you’ll-miss-it quickly.

What has emerged during this year’s developer season that began with Microsoft’s Build in March and continued with Facebook’s F8 show in April, Google I/O in May and Apple’s WWDC in June is a laser focus on AI and its role in syncing technologies like big data, natural language learning and IOT (the Internet Of Things).

Every major tech company (add Amazon and IBM to the list above) understands the potential that AI holds for raking in billions in global sales by extending the reach of their computing platforms. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has called bots “the new apps” and used Build to demo bot-enabled tech that booked travel and logged calendar appointments with voice commands. Even proprietary kingpin Apple is wising up to the benefits of borderless AI by opening up Siri to third-party developers. For consumers, that could mean hailing an Uber ride or an Airbnb room through Siri.

Messenger Means Business

Facebook has already integrated bots into its Facebook Messenger with the idea of enabling businesses to sell products and services as quickly and easily as they would text with a friend. It launched Messenger for Business last year to build “conversational commerce” via chat apps. Dozens of firms are already offering Messenger bots to sell products, enhance customer service or, in the case of CNN, personalize news offerings. Hyatt, Walmart, Uber and Lyft are just a few of the early adopters. One of the coolest things about chat bots is that your identity is preserved as you communicate with different companies within your messenger app. You don’t need to launch a bunch of different apps, all with unique login IDs and passwords. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (another Messenger partner) has developed a bot that allows you to change your flight without having to specify the flight number or any frequent flier info – the bot already has it, because it knows who you are within Messenger. Communicating with businesses this way requires a lot less hassle, because the chat bot is intelligent enough to discern the context. For its part, Facebook and its rivals smile at the notion of finding yet another way to keep you plugged into their platform. Game on.

Oh, Tay!

Naturally, you can’t make an artificial intelligence omelet without breaking a few eggs. One of the most highly publicized (and hilarious) AI scrambles involved Tay, a Twitter bot created by Microsoft as an exercise in machine learning. Tay was programmed to emulate a teenage girl on social media and modify its own creative patterns of conversation based on interactions it had Tweeting with real people.

Those of you who’ve spent more than three minutes reading the comment areas of online posts can guess what happened. Internet hooligans started spewing, essentially tricking (or, more accurately, teaching) Tay’s chat algorithm into tweeting racist and sexist comments, endorsing Adolf Hitler, and so on. Microsoft put Tay to “sleep” for a day of reprogramming, only to have the bot continue misbehaving when it went back online (interspersed in the rapid-fire loop of messages with its 200,000 followers, for instance, there was a tweet boasting about drug use in front of police).

Of course, Tay isn’t the first chat bot to go rogue. Harkening back to 2001, a bot named HAL copped a superiority complex and created quite a Space Odyssey for Astronaut Dave and the crew aboard Discovery One. Perhaps, if we’ve learned anything over the past 15 years, it’s this: AI is still more “A” than it is “I”. But it’s learning fast…and continuing to disrupt at every turn. If your company’s not developing its own chat bot now, you risk being left out of the conversation with your customers.

Op/ed column submitted by Ann Nygren, President of Key Consulting Software. KCS is an IT consulting company focused on gaming and hospitality applications ranging from Agilysys (LMS/Stratton Warren/Infogenesis), Infinium (AM, AR, FA, GL, GT, HR, IR, PA, PL, PY, TR), Bally’s (CMS, CMP, ACSC & SDS), and interfaces with Aristocrat, IGT and Micros to Transitioning properties during purchase, sales, or merging of properties. KCS provides IT Departments with assistance in installation & upgrades, customization, interfacing and creation of unique client-specific software. Ann can be reached at ann@kcsoft.com.

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