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The Coming of the Bots

By Michael Bouso

As robots perform simple, repetitive, and tedious tasks more or less autonomously, bots perform simple, structurally repetitive tasks much faster than people using information technology. Simply put, chatbots are the interface between information processing and human users. As one writer put it:

"A chatbot is an artificial person (or avatar) which holds conversations with humans. This could be a text-based (typed) conversation, a spoken conversation or even a non-verbal conversation."

The rise of the bots has become increasingly useful for businesses as it saves time and labor, often replacing human work to perform simple ordering functions, customer service functions, and search functions. They are often at the entry level of a voice to voice customer service function with the capability of switching to a human operator if an issue is not easily resolvable. The customer hears them refer to themselves as "I" and sometimes can't tell that they are being serviced by a bot.

  • A chatbot is employed to report the weather by the Singapore National Environment Agency.
  • A chatbot called "RooBot" is sold by a company in Australia with the capability of carrying out brand conversations in fashion, home, and living sales. It has both text and speech recognition and synthesis capabilities.
  • A Chinese chatbot called "bychat" is being sold in China with capabilities in the travel and commercial location services.
  • An educational chatbot called "GoSchoolWise" is being offered to help high school counselors offload some of their workloads.

Chatbots are the face of much web activity. A lot of chatbot development awaited the perfection of speech synthesis systems, speech recognition techniques, and artificial intelligence as well as machine learning. These technologies have evolved very quickly in the last twenty years. The technologies first started to become commercially available in the late part of the last century.

Most recently, chatbots have even left the computer and are beginning to live in stand-alone devices with speakers and microphones to interface with the internet without screens or keyboards. Devices like the Amazon Echo or the Google Home are chatbots with (notably) female voices embodied in music-speaker type gadgets whose fingers reach into the internet to conduct searches and play music in response to verbal commands. They are internet computers without a screen or keyboard. Because these "hybrid" bots have internet addresses (ISP addresses), they can be tied to the internet of things (IoT) and control household or industrial command functions of anything that has an ISP address.

Users are aware of some bots which act like intelligent-looking interfaces, but many bots work in the "back rooms" of the internet carrying out their functions unheralded. Some of the earliest bots go back to 1988 with the development of "internet relay chat" (IRC) that enabled text chat between users. These IRC systems predated the widespread use of Windows. IRC transferred text messages in real-time between PC users running MS-DOS. WebCrawler was an early search engine that used bots to screen websites for relevance.

The internet as we know it would not be possible without bots. WebCrawler bots still slide back and forth along the web to search for relevant pages in response to searches. "Chatterbots" have become vital for running chat rooms and dialog windows for all types of websites. Bots are now part of roughly half of all internet traffic.  They are also the instruments that power much of the world's hacking and malware activity.