I had a friend ask me for my thoughts on bots. It is a space I tend to rant about frequently, though it isn’t an area I’m moving forward in as far as meaningful research. But it does seem to keep coming up, refusing to ever go away. I think bots are a great example of yet another thing that us technologists get all worked up about and think is the future, but in reality, there will only be a handful of viable use cases, and bots will cause more harm than they ever will do any good, or they won't fully enjoy a satisfactory mainstream adoption.
First, bots aren’t new. Second, bots are just automation. Sure, there will be some useful automation implementations, but more often than not, bots will wreak havoc and cause unnecessary noise. Conveniently, though, no matter what happens, there will be money to be made deploying and defending each wave of bot investment. Making bots is pretty representative of how technology is approached in today’s online environment — lots of tech, lots of investment, regular waves, and not a lot of good sense.
Top Bot Platforms
Where can you deploy and find bots today? These are the dominant platforms where I am seeing bots emerge:
- Twitter, who is building bots on the public social media platform using their API.
- Facebook, who is building Facebook Messenger bots to unleash on the Facebook Graph.
- Slack, who is building more business and productivity focused bots on Slack.
There are other platforms like Telegram and there are folks developing interesting GitHub bots, but these three platforms dominate the conversation when it comes to bots in 2017. Each platform brings its own tone when it comes to what bots are capable of doing and who's developing the bots. Another important thing to note across these platforms is that Slack is really the only one working to own the bot conversation on their platform, while Facebook and Twitter allow the developer community to own the conversation about exactly what bots are.
When it comes to bots and automation, I’m always left thinking more broadly about other conversational interfaces and Siri or Amazon Alexa. The Amazon Alexa platform operates on a similar level to Slack when it comes to providing developers with a framework and tooling for defining and delivering conversational interfaces. Voice just happens to be the interface for Amazon. The chat and messaging window is the interface for Slack, Twitter, and Facebook. Alexa is a bot, consuming API resources alongside the other popular definitions of what a bot is on messaging and social channels, expanding the surface area for how bots are engaged with and deployed in 2017.
Bots and APIs
To me, bots are just another client application for APIs. In the early days, APIs were about syndicating content on the web. Then, they were used to deliver resources to mobile applications. Now, they deliver content, data, and (increasingly) algorithms to devices, conversational interfaces, signage, automobiles, home appliances, and so on. When any user asks a bot a question, the bot is making one or many API calls to get the sports statistic, news report, weather report, or maybe the purchase of a product. There will be many useful scenarios in which APIs will be able to deliver critical resources to conversational interfaces, but like many other client implementations, there will be many, many bad examples along the way.
In 2017, the API space is shifting gears from being primarily data- and content-based to having a more algorithmic focus. AI, machine learning, deep learning, cognitive systems, and other algorithmically fueled interfaces are emerging wrapped in APIs and are intent on delivering “smart” resources to web, mobile, and conversational interfaces. We will continue to see an overwhelming amount of discussion at the intersection of bots, APIs, and AI in coming years, with very little actual results delivered. Regardless, there will be lots of money to be made by a few along the way. Algorithms will play a central role in ensuring the “intelligence” behind bots stays a black box and sufficiently passes as at least magic if not being entirely passed off as comparable to human intelligence.
Where Will the Bot Money Be?
When it comes to making money with bots, there will only be a couple of value creation centers: First, the platforms where bots operate will do well (most of them). I'm not sure they all will generate revenue directly from bots but they will ensure bots are driving value that's in alignment with platform revenue goals. Next, defensive bot solutions will generate sufficient amounts of revenue identifying and protecting businesses, institutions, and government agencies from bot threats. Beyond that, venture capital folks will also do well investing in both the bot disruption and bot defensive layers of the conversation — although VCs who aren’t directly involved with bot investment will continue to be duped by fake users, customers, and other bot-generated valuations, leaving bot blemishes on their portfolios.
Who Will Lose With Bots?
Ultimately, it is the rest of us who will come out with on the losing side of these “conversations.” Our already very noisy worlds will get even noisier, with more bot chatter in the channels we currently depend on daily. The number of humans we engage with on a daily basis will decrease and the number of frustrating “conversations” we find ourselves stuck in will increase. Everything fake will continue to inflate and find new ways to morph, duping many of us in new and exciting ways. Markets will be noisy, emotional, and always artificially inflated. Elections will continue to be just an outright bot assault on voters, leaving us exhausted, numb, and pretty moldable by those who have the biggest bot arsenals.
Some Final Thoughts on Bots
I am continuing to see interesting bots emerge on Twitter, Facebook, Slack, GitHub, and other channels I depend on. I have no doubt that bots and conversational solutions will continue to grow, evolve, and result in a viable ecosystem of users, service providers, and investors. However, I predict it will be very difficult for bots to ever reach an acceptable mainstream status. As we’ve seen in every important conversation we have online today, some of the most badly behaved amongst us always seem to dominate in online conversation. Why is this? Bots. We'll see this play out in almost every business sector.