How Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence Are Evolving the Digital/Social Experience

Digital engagement is once again shifting, as we can see from the main discussions at Facebook’s F8 conference this week about the new release of Messenger and its smart chatbots, or when we look at what’s happening with popular team messaging services like Slack, which is being “overrun by friendly, wonderful bots.” While bots seem like a minor improvement to digital user experience, some believe — including myself — that a combination of today’s latest technologies will transform this what’s-old-is-new-again technology into a major new force in contemporary digital experience and social engagement.

Over the last couple of years, conversing in everyday language with our digital devices has become relatively commonplace with the advent of widely used digital concierge services like Siri, Google Now, and Amazon Echo. Known more formally as ‘conversational user experiences (UXs)’, this dialogue-based interaction model actually has quite a long history going way back to command-line programs like Eliza and Zork (both of which yours truly spent far too much time with when younger), the first commercial expert systems in the 1980s, IRC bots, and other early examples.

Anatomy of a Chat: How Conversational UXs Add Value

While there’s always been an assumption that bots had a bit code behind them with a little situated intelligence — from performing simple services like scheduling reminders via IM all the way up to the first textual AI-based systems such as MYCIN for helping doctors diagnose infections — most conversational interfaces tend to be relatively simple affairs with a little bit of basic natural language processing connected to a decision tree.

That’s clearly about to change in a major way as the introduction of more powerful forms of artificial intelligence and machine learning are combined with new UX channels like voice, video, virtual reality (and soon enough brain/machine) into solutions designed to assist people in their daily activities. These bots will ultimately be unleashed on a) all of the visible digital data in existence, b) apply vast computing power and cutting-edge algorithms to make sense of it all, and c) provide the ability to use this knowledge to converse with us about the world in a deeply meaningful way.

Siri on Apple devices, the conversational UX I use most, has been able to handle increasingly complex and useful queries over the years, often aided by deep smarts from 3rd party services like Wolfram Alpha. Siri is a good example of the overall progress of general purpose chatbots, but it — and the others like it — are really just the tip of the iceberg. I predict you’ll see chatbots appear in almost every user interface in the near future as a way to almost completely remove the friction between our computing systems and us.

How Chatbots Will Impact Online Community

How will the rise of chatbots with AI affect the most important new digital environments for our organizations, online communities and enterprise social networks? I wondered this recently, in particular how it might affect the highly strategic and valuable role of community management. To explore this more, I posed this question yesterday on Twitter to a couple of top colleagues in the space, Rachel Happe and Carrie Basham-Young, with Constellation’s Alan Lepofsky joining in:

Chatbots for Community Management: A Twitter Conversation with Rachel Happe, Alan Lepovsky, and Carrie Basham Young

Why would chatbots help with digital leadership roles like community management? By being connected to the global activity stream and then assisting in the most fundamental — and therefore most common — community management scenarios. This would offload a very overworked role to handle routine digital enablement like helping users through common issues, basic community skill building, ensuring a basic SLA for questions and answers, and providing coaching to community/ESN users on the fly. Other likely scenarios include capturing community data and reporting on it and providing a queryable interface on community needs, hotspots, and quiet zones to improve social business adoption and drive business performance. Chatbots in this space have great potential in my opinion and we’ll soon see them more and more in the social business world.

How Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence could Help Community Managers

But are chatbots for community management — and other domains of digital engagement — really going to happen? I’d argue that since they already are in many other similar functions, such as Web site sales and support, that it’s almost certain, as a greater share of conversation shifts from human-to-human (H2H) to human-to-machine(H2M.) In fact, an employee from Cognizant even chimed into the above Twitter conversation that they are actually working on this. A smart chatbot to aid in community management will likely do volumes to improve the effectiveness of online communities, which are still getting short shrift in terms of investment in the professional skills needed to manage and facilitate them well.

In short, I believe smart chatbots will revolutionize digital/social engagement by adding a much needed automation and support of communication, knowledge management, and collaboration. There are also high value scenarios for chatbots connected to the e-commerce especially, an area that Facebook was careful to emphasize at F8. Chatbots will likely contribute to some digital noise as well, but filtering has proven effective in general for social environments in recent years. Overall, the emerging ensemble of conversational technologies is going to offer a compelling new access point to digital value for the average people in a very substantial way. At this point, I’d strongly recommend that most organizations add them to the new enterprise technologies to watch.) I will be adding smart chatbots to my upcoming 2016 enterprise tech watchlist on ZDNet as well.

Sunday Musings: Google’s Identity Struggles, Plus Social Media Bans Around the World

The Web’s missing features for built-in user identity have become a real headache for the industry, and for its users too. It certainly took its toll on market leader Google this week as its “Identity Theater” continued (Source: Kevin Marks.) The issue? It’s turning out that making every single user comply with the Common Names policy isn’t workable for a variety of reasons. Reports of Google deleting accounts en masse are driving a lot of the discussion. Robert Scoble has his own recommendations for Google and while they’re probably the least that would be acceptable to the majority of people, it doesn’t go far enough I think.

It certainly doesn’t have to be this way. Twitter allows companies, bots, and just about every other type of social account and it works quite well in the end. Twitter ran into a similar identity issue in a big way a couple of years back after facing lawsuits and widespread complaints. They managed to muddle through with Verified Accounts.

A growing consensus is that Google should allow user-defined accounts as well, with verified identity for those that want or need it. Personally, I’m not sure I see Google coming around with a response fast enough to prevent some damage to services and impacting Google Plus‘s runaway adoption. But in my analysis, it’s most likely to only hurt the commercialization of the service, not regular usage for most for now.

Social Identity Ownership - Google or Facebook?

Worse, the problem may actually be core to the way Google’s stack is conceived and architected. It may not be easy for them to change course in the short-term without ripples through the way global Google’s services fundamentally operate from a security and identity perspective. It also may not be good for their business model which is almost certainly based on the fact they know who people really are. This issue is one to watch given Google’s pervasiveness. It also has some significant implications for business users of its products, especially now that they seem to be gaining some much needed traction in the social networking wars.

For now, I’d recommend that businesses use Google Plus with an eye towards experimentation while the Web giant gets its philosophy and policies around identity sorted out. Frankly, the bigger industry issue is social Web identity itself. Users and companies increasingly depend on commercial providers like Facebook, Twitter, and Google to provide everything identity-related, from login access to storage and maintenance of their social graph. This is causing key elements of power and control to start to swing away from the open standards that made the Web so successful and essentially fair.

Will the W3C step in and resolve what’s appearing to be an increasingly glaring absence in the Web stack? So far it seems unlikely given the failure of many years of open standard Web identity efforts. The culprit? You have only to look in the mirror. Apathy by users and lack of consensus on the part of Web developers. There’s also a lot at stake financially for those that end up owning a big chunk of Web identity. Consequently, online — and especially social — identity is likely to grow into a full blown brouhaha in the next couple of years as issues, missteps, and abuses inevitably surface. However, we could also decide to put our own house in order before governments step in, the least desirable of all outcomes in most imaginable scenarios. The worst probably being governments owning, issuing, and centrally managing verified Web identity credentials for everyone.

Which brings us to the next subject…

Government Bans Chipping Away At Social Media Freedoms?

A couple of interesting things happened this week with governments aiming their considerable might at social media. While knee-jerk responses to this space were common enough a few years ago, with the U.S. Marines banning social media access for a while for example, these are now generally understood to be counterproductive and unworkable for a long list of reasons.

However, that didn’t stop the German government from banning the Facebook ‘Like’ button on Friday, sure to ignite a small firestorm in that country given that it seems to apply to any site accessible from inside its borders and the fine is a stiff €50,000. The Like button, used on millions of sites around the world to enlist users to leverage their Facebook social network to share content from 3rd party sites (see: k-factor), is significant enough on its own to put German Web businesses at some competitive disadvantage on the global stage. The concern is over privacy and that “all the information was sent to the US company even if someone was not a Facebook member.

In another similar situation, the Missouri state government’s new law preventing teachers from using social media to communicate privately with students, the former who just announced that they are fighting back, is another case in point. There are obvious free speech issues with the law despite the good intent on its face to protect students. The real issue is that the law is that violations are almost impossible to detect and enforce, until its too late, and that it ensures teachers, one of the most collaborative and interaction driven professions with far reaching impact, can’t have much of a social media presence of any kind until the implications are sorted out. It also presumably doesn’t prevent teachers from privately communicating with their students in any number of other digital channels. All of this means the law won’t accomplish a whole lot other than sowing confusion and promoting the use of increasingly obsolete methods in an increasingly fast-changing economic and societal landscape.

The real issue with both of these laws is that they are 1) essentially short-sighted, 2) exhibit such poor understanding of social media as to be essentially useless, and 3) are therefore unlikely to be meaningfully carried out. Worse, they chip away at the edges by introducing step-by-step, largely ineffective government oversight and control over social media, one of the largest economic, cultural, and societal changes of our time. This will become an even hotter topic as the Middle East’s social media coordinated model for uprising spills out of the developing world. In fact, this has already happened in Britain and there are already cries to ban social media in cases of civil unrest.

I should be careful to note here: I’m not by and large suggesting there’s any overarching government scheme to interfere with and control social media. Instead, I’m suggesting we keep a close eye on these developments as social media legislation increasingly (and inevitably) accumulates in bits and pieces on the base of knee-jerk responses to individual situations. This will have a great many unintended and unwanted consequences. The continued growth of laws and regulations in a vital new industry that thrives on inherent openness and trust has the potential to limit it so profoundly that we could lose much of the great promise that social media can provide.

While we must find ways that work to protect our citizens, we must also provide them access to one of the most open, free, and powerful means of interacting that has been invented. Let’s push back on unreasonable measures while also proactively being responsible for solving them. It’s up to us to start finding globally acceptable solutions to privacy, security, and misuse in social media and getting them into the hands of those who don’t understand this space well enough yet to govern it. The options for making this happen are something I’ll explore as soon as I can.

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