Writers, for instance, have a hard enough time communicating clearly to human readers, counting on them to be able to use imagination, to infer meaning from new constructions of words and to engage on an empathic level. Computers can’t even meet us halfway like this. Type some words, click a mouse, touch a screen, speak into a microphone. For you to be able to do this, you had to put valuable time and effort into learning how to understand the application – and someone had to figure out how to make the application understand you. Even for normal voice commands, someone had to programme the computer with a vocabulary of sounds it could refer to and give you instructions that told you about this vocabulary. Okay, so now you’re talking instead of typing, but it’s really only a replacement for point-and-click. It still can’t understand normal speech. You’re choosing from a limited menu of options and your voice commands have to be specific and very clear.
As our interaction with the web become increasingly complex, we’re faced with greater demands to learn how to use each new app we engage with. Chatbots are intended to cut down on the skills needed to use technology. They’re a means of making our computers more responsive, more personalised to our needs, in order to make our interaction with it feel more natural. And actually, the idea of a chatbot isn’t even that new. In 1966, Joseph Weizenbaum, at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, created the first chatbot, a programme that could mimic human conversation using pre-prepared, scripted responses to keywords. He wrote dialogue for it. He was trying to prove how superficial communication was between humans and machines. Instead, a lot of people found themselves charmed by what, for the first time, seemed to be a friendly computer. Despite Weizenbaum’s frustrated assurances to the contrary, some people even though his programme, ELIZA, was intelligent and understood what they were saying. Writers dream of creating this kind of magic; the scientists were just bemused.
A modern chatbot is not intended to be a cheap electronic copy of a human. It is a smarter, more versatile and sophisticated form of the kinds of apps you use every day – or it can use your apps for you, an assistant in your computer, doing the work that bots do so well; searching, collating, analysing and refining information, and it can do these things a lot faster than you can. It can compare the costs of flights or insurance quotes, find a book online or suggest one based on you’re the books it knows you’ve read . . . and you can ask it the way you’d ask a human and it will understand the request. Technology like this reduces the skill and time you have to invest in any action, making the interaction between humans and computers more intuitive, to make it feel more natural.
Today, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa are all examples of a sophisticated chatbot known as an ‘intelligent personal assistant’. These companies are investing heavily in this technology. Chatbots’ human-like responses are just the logical step up from the touchscreen, which grew from the point and clicks of a mouse, which in turn grew from typing code onto a screen. Each new step demands less skill and takes less effort.