Most of us will be familiar with Siri, the personal assistant that lives inside your iPhone, answering questions, checking the weather, and setting your morning alarms. Now imagine Siri on a whole other level. Something just short of Scarlett Johansson in Spike Jonze’s Her – for now, anyway.

Those of you that have recently updated your Apple devices to iOS 10 might have noticed the bot features that have been integrated into the messaging application. Bots are more accessible than ever, and can be reached without having to go at all out of your way. In fact, you could be using them regularly without even knowing it.

Not entirely sure what a bot is?

A bot is essentially a piece of software with which users can send and receive text-based messages. The bots read the text and form responses, and are capable of sustaining what appears to be intelligent conversation. Unlike Siri, however, a bot should be able to converse with you as though you were talking to a real human.

You might think of them as an automated form of customer service. Not only are they able to provide answers to questions, their additional intelligence means they can come up with alternatives when you need them to. What’s more, they can retain information from previous conversations and use it to inform future conversations, enabling them to provide a more ‘human’ service. So, if you tell a bot that you spent yesterday afternoon playing video games, and then complain that you’re bored, it starts to learn what to suggest.

How are bots being used?

Many large corporations have developed variations on the internet bot, to fulfil different services. With a very basic interface, Kik introduced the bot to social media, and more recently created an online store for bot interfaces, titled the ‘Bot Shop’. Depending on what the consumer is looking for, they can download bots from three separate categories: entertainment, lifestyle, and games. If you needed help with shopping, you might download and speak to the H&M bot. The bot would be able to answer your questions and, like any good employee, would try and sell you products from their store.

Potential has been spotted for bots in other industries, too. As part of their CogniToys project, Elemental Path developed a talking toy dinosaur bot that uses WIFI to connect to IBM’s Watson supercomputer, a system designed to process natural language, retrieve information, and form reasoning.

Here, the bot is being adapted to respond appropriately to “mommy” questions (“Why is the sky blue?”, “Where do babies come from?”, etc.) The bot can learn from its conversations, and adjust its content based on the level of vocabulary and interests of the child, and a “Parent Panel” allows parents to view information about these interactions, and even set play restrictions.

This Kickstarter-funded toy is marketed as equal parts entertainment and educational, but it certainly leaves you wondering what bots like this have the potential to replace. 

Using bots to tap into the teen market

In 2015, there were 1.5 billion bot users. Facebook pitched in and added bots to their Messenger application for mobile devices – you can access bots in Facebook Messenger by tapping on the search bar. A ‘bots and businesses’ tab should pop up, offering you a choice of bots to chat with.

According to Kik, 70% of its users are between the age of 13-24, and around 40% of all teens in the USA use their service. If you’ve not yet been exposed to the world of bots, these numbers are somewhat astonishing. They tell us not only that there are a huge number of people familiar and engaging with bots, but that if this is the case, bots could be bringing with them a lot of previously untapped opportunities.

Ted Livingston, the founder of Kik, believes that while Kik is free, there is money to be made through bots in terms of marketing, and influencing the consumer. In a strange twist of irony, bots are designed to encourage a more ‘human’ style of conversation, and Livingston hopes that more teens will familiarise themselves with bots and eventually use them for their own commercial transactions. From a commercial perspective, teenagers are the ideal target demographic: technologically savvy enough to navigate a bot system, and moving into the years where they have their own money to spend, without the financial sensibilities of a mortgage-paying adult.

So… where’s the downside to bots?

Bots are, when it comes down to it, just very intelligent computers. They offer the equivalent of being able to contact someone on Facebook Messenger, and have them reply straight away every single time. In theory, they remove the need for simple customer service altogether; if the company you’re looking for has a bot then more often than not the bot will be able to provide you with thorough answers, suggestions, and solutions.

Plus, as so many bots can be reached through Kik and Facebook Messenger, there’s no need for any clutter on your phone with lots of new app downloads.

While bots are not yet perfectly refined, and are obviously not going to be the solution to all of our problems, they definitely come with a lot of potential. But, at the end of the day, they are manmade pieces of technology, and are therefore by no means infallible. Since they are manmade, they can act in any way the creator wants them to – for better or worse. A bot for a clothing brand, for example, has the potential to overrule your wants and needs by promoting the brand’s clothing to you. You might even worry that a bot will make an incorrect purchase on your behalf, through a malfunction or misunderstanding. While there have been no serious bot-related tragedies to date, this could just be because bots haven’t yet been given enough authority for that to be possible.

What might the future of bots look like?

ITProPortal outlines some of the things that we could expect from bots in the future, and, depending on how you look at it, it’s either exciting or terrifying. They theorise that bots could function as educators, replacing traditional classroom learning. They could even act as medical consultants. If you’re guilty of checking your symptoms online instead of seeing a doctor, why couldn’t there be a bot for that?

Whilst there might be fear driven around the possibility of losing human jobs to technology, there are definitely ways to see a positive future for bots, and their relationship with people. Yes, there are always going to be those that trust nothing short of true, face-to-face human interaction. But on the other end of the spectrum, there’s a shy or introverted individual who would feel far more comfortable seeking the assistance of an automated operating system.

With further research and funding, bots could be developed for more difficult and complex situations. An especially intelligent bot could be helpful for children with learning difficulties, or to talk to somebody struggling with their mental health. The CogniToys project has already formed a relationship between the bot and children’s education and entertainment, but we’d be very interested to see how this is further explored over the next few years. It’s tricky territory and requires a great deal of trust in technology, so we’re not sure if bot babysitters are on the horizon just yet.

Now that retail outlets such as H&M are adopting bot applications, they’re well on their way to becoming more and more accessible, and advanced. And who knows? Perhaps one day, they’ll render high-street shops and customer service lines completely obsolete.

Posted September 27th 2016
Steph Rathbone
Steph is Jollywise's Content Executive and resident bookworm.