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The Download: Facebook advances new era in which information comes to you, no humans required

Facebook ushers in new era for robot helpers
With the 1-800-Flowers bot, you can order flowers or chat with support just by sending messages in Facebook Messenger.
(Jennifer Van Grove)

Humans are so passe.

Facebook now wants to expand your social circle in its messaging app, Messenger, beyond friends to include chatbots, which are designed to shop, search and generally just get things done for you.

It’s certainly a leap to think we, humans, want to connect with computer programs in the same space where we spill our guts to our closest pals, gossip with our co-workers and coordinate with family members to arrange life’s most sacred events (weddings, funerals, etc.).

Or maybe it’s not.

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“It’s not completely weird for people 35 or younger to interact with machines,” said EMarketer analyst Yory Wurmser. “The freakout factor is gone.”

Though seemingly unfriendly, chatbots, or bots for short, are just software systems that simulate conversations. And, thanks to your smartphone, you probably already encounter a handful of different bots every day, as Wurmser suggested. Take Apple’s Siri, Google Now or Amazon’s Alexa, the virtual assistant that powers the e-commerce giant’s Echo device. Other bots are even more commonplace, say automated text messages confirming a package shipment.

A new breed of bots, however, are about to invade Messenger, the social network’s popular chat app, now with more than 900 million users. Users who have, until now, communicated entirely with others in the human race. Facebook last week opened the floodgates, letting third-parties develop bot helpers that will ideally make it more efficient to complete quotidian tasks.

In the same way you message a friend, you can now message a bot for weather updates, to order flowers, to buy a new pair of shoes or receive the day’s top headlines.

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The earliest entrants in Messenger’s bot-dom include CNN, 1-800-Flowers and the shopping app Spring. With the 1-800-Flowers bot, you can, for instance, order flowers or chat with support just by sending messages in Messenger. So, as Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg put it, to order from 1-800-Flowers, you never have to call 1-800-Flowers again.

More bots are on the way, meaning a pending onslaught will usher in a new era in mobile where information comes to you, on your terms — or at least that’s the vision proffered by Zuckerberg. He believes you’ll soon opt for bots over mobile apps and, of course, those pesky 800-numbers. Because why should you have to hassle with opening other apps or speaking to a human to accomplish things?

“Chatbots are to you and me and today’s culture, what call centers are to our parents’ culture,” said Brian Solis, the principal analyst at Altimeter Group and an expert on trends in social media.

Maybe so, but that assumes people will simply accept bots as their new besties. Pause to think about that. Siri may be handy when you need her, but she doesn’t insert herself smack-dab in the middle of your personal life. And she doesn’t constantly remind you of her presence, as some of Messenger’s bots do. The CNN bot, for example, sends a daily message with the top headlines, which is great when you’re in the mood for news, but also potentially annoying when you’re not.

Still, it stands to reason that youngsters, in particular, who are already glued to their phones and do prefer to communicate via texts and mobile messages, will latch on to these bot-enabled friendships with benefits.

“Mobile pervasiveness is a fact of life,” Solis said. “Smartphone users look at their phones 1,500 times a week. That adds up to 177 minutes every day.”

Of course, by adding bots to Messenger, Facebook risks creating a mess. The company is essentially inviting businesses into a friends-only zone, businesses that may or may not respect your messaging boundaries.

That is absolutely a concern, Solis said. But he’s confident that Zuckerberg, a self-professed champion of user experience over profits, can sort through the complications of convincing nearly a billion people to talk to bots before the fad flames out. It certainly helps the Facebook chief’s cause that smartphone and Internet usage has already evolved to reward the path of least resistance over the one that requires more work.

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In Internet culture, when you’re looking for something, you go to your social network connections and you ask for assistance, Solis said, as an example. “Chatbots are an evolution of that behavior.”

In other words, lazy is the new smart, and bots are better than friends.

Jennifer Van Grove covers e-commerce and digital lifestyle for the San Diego Union Tribune.


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