Mark Zuckerberg announced Tuesday at Facebook’s annual conference for software developers in San Francisco, called f8, that Facebook will be launching an interactive feature on Messenger that will allow its 900 million monthly users to converse with businesses through the app.
The new concept will allow for such novelties as organizing a Lyft or Uber ride, or even ordering flowers from 1-800 Flowers by conversing with a ‘chat bot.’ Chat bots, or chat robots, are automated systems that have become popularized in many parts of Asia but have only just begun to take root in the United States and Europe. They serve as an interactive automated service able to answer customer questions and perform business interactions through digital conversation with customers.
Starting Tuesday, Messenger users will be able to interact with 6 chat bots with many more to follow soon—the goal being to get hundreds of businesses at customers’ fingertips—literally.
But the fun doesn’t stop there. A new furry cat guised in a yellow raincoat will be available to chat with about the weather—no need to depend on the faulty weather app available on the iPhone, Weather Cat has got your back!
You may have this question floating through your mind at this incredibly new prospect: what about the apps all of these businesses have already created? What about the services that are available on them, and all of the apps that Google has competitively been creating for these exact purposes?
The concept of the chat bot is meant to be a direct rival to the world of mobile apps. Facebook is hungrily vying to own more of online consumers’ “mobile moments,” a battle they are directly fighting against Google and other big-name competitors. The fight for people’s money and attention devoted to mobile devices is the main motivator behind these new Messenger innovations as technology’s roles in people’s lives continue to grow, according to Forrester Research analyst Julie Ask.
Yet there are many issues that come to mind while wrapping one’s head around this new concept. If people begin to revert to using robots as their main source of customer service, this may shut down an entire industry of call centers, in-store representatives, and independent online help-chatters that are currently devoted to assisting customers. An extreme sense of laziness and antisocial behavior could also ensue—if we no longer need to talk to a living human being to resolve problems, place any type of orders or clarify disparities, we are eliminating an entire chunk of learned social skills that humans have developed and refined over the course of history.
Facebook has already noted that there will be a population of users who are worried about the invasive nature of these add-ons, which is why they are developing a complementary feature that will allow users to mute messages from businesses they don’t wish to hear from or block communications with that enterprise. But is this enough? As we’ve seen with incessant e-mail blasts that never seem to go away (even after you unsubscribe multiple times) and companies that have found a way to seep even into our text inboxes by sending text message promotions, it’s hard to say how definitive this line that Facebook is claiming to draw truly is. There is no mention of being able to turn the feature off altogether, and turning off each of the eventual hundreds of participating businesses individually appears a lofty and unrealistic feat for users.
And this is just the beginning of a new form of artificial intelligence. Although it will take many more years of advances, the ultimate goal for companies like Facebook is to create interactive technology that can essentially learn to know you personally. To illustrate this, let’s take digital music as an example. Robot intelligence would not only be able to choose a category of music for you that you verbalize to it as Siri can, but know exactly which songs of that genre you prefer, in what order, and which to avoid, all based on its observation of your music selection habits.
Although fascinating and groundbreaking, the conversion of even more of our reality into the digital world is something to be aware of as these new features are developed and spread to millions of people worldwide. Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson claims technology is only going where its customers already are, meeting up with the demands that have already been set. But thinking critically about how this affects our socialization, relationships with others, and expectations for the world around us are all things to consider.