Tech giants like Facebook and Microsoft can’t stop talking about chatbots right now, but what are they, are they any good and how do you start building them?

Like it or not, 2016 has been the year we all came to know the chatbot. The transition from obscure tech to buzzword to leading the news agenda arrived when Microsoft launched Tayin March, before it went on a genocidal, racist Twitter rant and was subsequently taken offline for some tweaking.

Facebook then firmly secured chatbots position as ‘tech du jour’ with its announcement at its F8 developer conference in April 2016 that businesses will now be able to provide chatbots to deliver automated customer support via its ‘Messenger’ service.

What is a chatbot?

Before chatbots there were just bots: a piece of software that is designed to automate a specific task. A chatbot is built on the same premise, however it delivers this task around a single function, namely chat, or simulated conversation.

A chatbot uses machine learning to pick up on conversational cadences, allowing it to effectively mimic human conversation and react to spoken or written prompts to deliver a service.

The chatbot is essentially a user interface which can be plugged into a number of data sources via APIs so it can deliver information or services on demand, such as weather forecasts or breaking news.

Lauren Kunze has been building chatbots since she was fifteen years old. She is now principal at Pandorabots and told that there are two main categories of chatbots: “Largely there are two classes: utility chatbots and then there are content-driven bots.”

“Utility gets something done following a prompt. At a higher level the more entertainment-related chatbots are able to answer all questions and get things done. Siri and Cortana you can have small talk with, as well as getting things done, so they are much harder to build. They took years and years of giant company’s efforts. Different companies that don’t have those resources, like Facebook, will build more constrained utility bots.”

It’s worth noting that, despite the hype, this isn’t new technology. Joseph Weizenbaum developed a natural language processing programme named ELIZA in the 1960s. What has changed is the advancement in artificial intelligence (AI) technology and its growing accessibility for developers to build and deploy functioning chatbots relatively quickly.

Which companies are building chatbots?

Naturally most of the tech giants are helping developers build chatbots on their platform, with the only glaring exception being Google’s silence on the topic to date, bar rumours, considering how much data and the resources it has access to.

Chatbots obviously lend themselves well to communication platforms, which is why Slack users will be familiar with Slackbot. Unfortunately my interactions with Slackbot have only led to an existential crisis so far.