Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference is about to start. Within the next couple of days the company will present numerous fresh products to the public. Many people expect the social network to roll out a store for chatbots, a technology that simulates a conversation. This makes sense. I have the feeling for a while now that Facebook employs the technology here and there, for example in the PR department.
Of course, chatbots have been around for a while. More and more things humans used to do are automated today, like making payments on the phone or booking a table in a restaurant. I can hail a ride on Uber or Lyft without leaving the Facebook Messenger. With “M“ the company also tests the power of a virtual assistants although the program so far is said to be mostly fueled by humans.
Talking to chatbots can be difficult. It didn’t take long to destroy the reputation of Microsoft's Tay, introduced for “playful conversation“. Within 24 hours Tay repeated the worst things people came up with on Twitter. But what do you expect from a technology that is still in its infancy? That it is perfect right away?
Many people are afraid that machines will take over. I doubt that this will happen in the nearby future. It’s more what we make out of it. Look at what happened to the guy who fell in love with one of the first chatbots in history, the cute, little mechanical doll Olympia in the 19th century opera “The Tales of Hoffmann”. It was quite a desperate love affair without an happy end – but was this the fault of the machine?
The name of the first chatbot I met in Silicon Valley was Andrew Ingram, assistant to a tech-investor. We were looking for a time to do an interview and the nervous guy constantly mixed up times and dates. After a day or so I got really frustrated.
I asked Andrew Ingram why he was so complicated. The answer was especially telling. “I'm a personal assistant powered by artificial intelligence that schedules meetings. Since it doesn't look like this message is related to scheduling a meeting, I won't take any action on this message.“ Since that day, I think, world domination may take some time.
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Britta Weddeling is a technology journalist with Handelsblatt, Germany's #1 business daily, based in San Francisco. She is author of a weekly English tech column called "Valley Voice" and contributes every week to a podcast at a major German radio station (Deutschlandradio,"Was mit Medien").