How exactly do chatbots work, and what's the future of AI? Read on to learn the secrets of tech's latest trend...

In case you missed the news, there’s a very special new member of the Vodafone UK customer services team: TOBi the chatbot! He’s intelligent, adaptable, and 100% robot, but TOBi’s just the latest in a long line of computerised contacts to land on the web… The chatbot revolution is here in earnest.

But what exactly is a chatbot, and how does one work? If you need to know your Turing tests from your Watsons, we’ve got all the info you need. Read on to become an instant expert on everything Chatbots…

What is a Chatbot?

Broadly, a Chatbot is a piece of software designed to mimic a human when spoken to – either by having a vocal conversation with a device (as with Siri), or a text conversation online or in an app (such as Facebook Messenger).

In a lot of today’s use cases, the goal is to take some of the strain off of a Chatbot’s human colleagues by answering simple or frequent questions, or by serving up specific content on demand. Outside of that (in loftier, less pragmatic circles) the development of Chatbot tech is a key part of the ongoing quest for true artificial intelligence.

The term is a derivative of one first used by internet pioneer Michael Mauldin in 1994 – ‘Chatterbot.’

How long have Chatbots been around?

To understand that we need to go back to the post-war antics of Alan Turing – the man behind the Enigma Machine, which famously helped crack Nazi codes in WWII. In his work on artificial intelligence in 1950, Turing posed the following question: “Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?”

He went on to outline the rules of what’s now known as the ‘Turing Test’, wherein success takes the form of a computer that’s able to fool someone into thinking they were talking to a fellow human. Since then there’ve been hundreds of attempts to pass the test, even though the goalposts for passing it have moved along with our expectations.

The first true Chatbot was ELIZA, a simple call and response program created in 1964. Eliza could answer set questions with stock responses, but lacked any kind of conversational context (i.e. remembering what was previously said). Many more have tried to pass the Turing test over the years, including PARRY in 1972, JABBERWACKY in 1988, and the ‘Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity’ (ALICE, obviously) in 1995.

But the most recent big tech leap was made by IBM Watson in 2011. Watson was designed to be able to compete in the TV Game Show Jeopardy!, which it won with ease, taking the $1million prize from two of the show’s (human) former champs. Watson has since transitioned into a development platform for Chatbots around the world.

How do Chatbots work?

The two basic building blocks of every Chatbot are intent – requests or commands for information – and answers. The aim of the game when developing one is to try and predict every type of question that’s likely to be asked, and build out branching conversation trees from there with predefined answers. In that way it’s a lot like writing the script for a two-man play – one where you’re guessing everything one of the actors might say, and attempting to have responses ready beforehand.

Where things get clever is when you bring in a dash of AI by way of a platform like IBM Watson. That’s when Chatbots become less rigid, and less reliant on exact wording in order to work. Watson, as a good example, is super smart at being able to decipher natural language and context to get to the heart of the question. With that in place, it’ll know that “Show me news stories about football” means the same thing as “I want football news” – and every similar phrasing in-between.

It helps, of course, that each Chatbot has its own specific purpose. You’re unlikely to ask a clothes store’s Chatbot to book you a cab, for instance, so bot makers can afford to just hone in on their more common customer queries.

Either way, once a Chatbot is up and running with an all-encompassing array of potential chat journeys, it can always be added to and tweaked to help stop anyone arriving at a dead end. And, depending on the platform on which it’s been built, Chatbots can even self-learn, adapting to needs as they arrive.

What are the best Chatbots around today?

Chances are you’ve already spoken to a Chatbot, thanks in no small part to an explosion in their availability and intelligence over the last few years. On the smartphone front, Apple’s Siri, the Google Assistant and Cortana give iOS, Android and Windows 10 (respectively) some extra brains, letting us search the web, set reminders, and even ask for jokes.

The latest mobile Chatbot assistant to join the fold is Bixby by Samsung, which launched on the new Galaxy S8. Samsung promises that Bixby will allow us to do with voice anything we can traditionally do by touch, which is quite a claim, but one that showcases how far these voice assistants have come since the launch of Siri in 2011.

Perhaps the biggest development in the last few years when it comes to getting big numbers of bots on the ground is the launch of Facebook’s ‘Bots for Messenger’ platform, which lets indie developers and big brands create Chatbots which live inside the Messenger app, ready to be chatted to just like you would your contacts.

There are already over 100,000 active Messenger bots across umpteen different categories. Here are just a few of our faves as examples:

Spotify
Ask Spotify to show you new songs that match a certain mood or genre, and it’ll duly deliver, serving up tracks you might not know about and helping you share them with your friends

Instalocate
Heading off on your holidays? The Instalocate bot will help you keep track of your flight, offering up extra info like luggage allowances and wait times along with any real time delays. If your flight is delayed past a certain point it’ll even get in touch to help you claim compensation.

BBC News
Turn your BBC news reading into a less passive experience by chatting with its stellar chatbot that lets you ask for the types of stories you want. It’ll also fire a notification your way as and when big news breaks.

And then, of course, there’s TOBi, our very own customer services Chatbot. TOBi’s going to become a core part of the My Vodafone app, and is able to help you sort out your bill, learn about different Vodafone services, and solve common problems that don’t require the human touch. You can find out more about TOBi here.

But Chatbots are now also making the jump from software to the realm of the physical – at least in the home. 2016 saw the arrival of Amazon’s Alexa, for instance, which lives in its Echo products to enable hands-free life admin and entertainment wrangling, while 2017’s also seen the similar ‘Google Home’ land in the UK after a lengthy wait.

What’s the future of Chatbots?

The great thing about this technology is that it only ever gets better. And because they’re a great way to interact with customers, all the biggest names in software and hardware are throwing fistfuls of money at both written and spoken Chatbots to grow their intelligence, ease of use and availability.

IBM’s ultimate goal is “to have computers start to interact in natural human terms across a range of applications and processes, understanding the questions that humans ask and providing answers that humans can understand and justify.” It’s a great aim in general terms, but what comes after that?

Current thinking is that we’ll soon see the rise of the ‘Master Bot’ – that is, overarching bots with the ability to connect to all the others out there. Siri, the Google Assistant, Alexa and Cortana are already on the way to becoming Master Bots, and when all the right wiring is laid down it’ll mean you’ll only have one place to go for all your online needs.

In practice, that’ll make it so that instead of chatting to the Uber bot to request a ride and the TechCrunch bot to read up on some tech news, you’d just be able to ask the Master Chatbot baked into your phone or device. That Master Bot would then work behind the scenes to interact with others, do what you need it to, and find all the information you’re after from one spot. Handy!

How could our new Chatbot help you? Check out how TOBi the Vodafone Chatbot is set to transform how you get the answers you need.