Ever since IBM’s Deep Blue won its first game against world chess champion Garry Kasparov in February 1996, we’ve seen artificial intelligence (AI) move from science fiction to science fact in the public mind. This subfield of computer science is all about solving tasks that are easy for humans but hard for computers. Given data, some logic and a set of rules, we want technology to figure out the best action under a certain set of circumstances.

Chatbots are services powered by a rules engine and sometimes AI that you interact with via any chat interface. The technology can be made available anywhere you need help, and is rapidly being integrated on mainstream messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Skype to answer questions, automate tasks, and help you get more things done.

Chatbots are even being used to re-imagine website user interfaces. For example, instead of making retail site visitors use search, and then making them browse and navigate a conventional menu and filter structure to find products, why not just let them ask questions? You tell the site what you are looking for in plain English (or the language of your choice). The chatbot asks additional questions to clarify your choice and then delivers tailored results.

Twenty years ago, this decision-making technology was the domain of massive mainframes. Today, chatbots are moving from specialist applications to everyday use, thanks to the mobile speech recognition technology that we carry in our pockets, combined with always-on connectivity that provides access to seemingly unlimited cloud computing resources at ever-shrinking costs.

So how can you harness chatbots to make your employees smarter? Here are some ideas, from the simple and practical to some advanced applications that are taking companies into the future of computing:

1. Your new personal assistant: Setting up meetings can soak up major admin time, especially when participants are on different mail and calendar systems. Email chatbots like X.ai and Slack chatbots like Meekan and Zoom.ai take on the drudgery of arranging and scheduling meetings.

2. Polling the team: Fast feedback is essential in today’s agile management and development environments. Polly the poll is the most popular chatbot in the Slack store and was one of the earliest arrivals on Microsoft Teams (Microsoft is keen to make it easy for developers to migrate bots to its environment). There are also a growing number of apps like Polly, or Poll Bot on Telegram, that allow you to easily create polls within the message stream and get team feedback in real time. Generally, they feature anonymous voting and comments, so you can hear the real story of what people think.

3. Managing tasks and projects: All the major messaging platforms feature chatbots that automate team communication and reporting, as well as time and expense tracking. You can ask them questions like “’What tasks are assigned to me,” or “Who is doing task x,” or “When is project y expected to be completed?” For example, Talla the Task Assistant is a Slack chatbot that can manage your to-do lists, send you reminders, or talk to Busybot or Asana to manage your tasks.

4. Smarter customer service: This is a big one. There are a growing number of applications in this space, like Helpshift for in-app support, Twyla for your existing helpdesk or live chat support, or Wizeline for 1:1 customer experiences through existing message services. These chatbots deliver a library of automated responses to common questions, supplemented by human expertise. They also learn and get smarter as they handle more customer queries. The ROI comes from reducing call center costs and accelerating customer service so your employees can focus on solving more difficult problems.

Conversational commerce

Social media and social networks have transformed marketing and business over the past 15 years, and we’ve all had to adapt to survive. Now we’re in a new era where messaging apps and bots are changing how we use social media to share and interact. As the BI Intelligence chart below shows, activity on messaging apps has surpassed communication on social networks.

As one example of how things are changing, Wired reports that every month, 600 million people use Weixin, the Chinese version of Tencent’s WeChat app, to book taxis, check in for flights, play games, buy cinema tickets, manage banking, book doctor appointments, donate to charity, and conduct video conferences all without leaving the app. Chris Messina (who coined the term hashtag with Stowe Boyd) calls this phenomenon “conversational commerce.” It means we are moving away from a world of websites that we navigate using tree structures built of menus and options. Instead of downloading and installing apps to our smartphones and learning how they work, we can access services directly from the messaging apps that we use each day by simply inviting a chatbot to the conversation. We don’t have to install anything or learn the user interface.

As well as reducing friction, chatbots remove the risk of downloading malware because the conversation becomes the interface. This marks a shift from the complexity of the dashboard—with its myriad buttons, levers, and dropdowns—to a conversational command-line interface. Commands are in plain English (or the language of your choice) with the occasional slash or special character.

The chatbot revolution is reshaping both UX design and social media. Today, there are 30,000 chatbots on Facebook Messenger and counting. Some 45,000 developers have already created bots with Microsoft Bot Framework, and more than 10,000 companies are now developing AI chatbots. All this suggests that conversational commerce is here to stay.

Harnessing chatbots: Lessons for leaders

  • Chatbots are services powered by rules engines that you interact with via any chat interface. They can be deployed as personal assistants that help you manage projects and tasks, or used to automate and improve customer service.
  • Chatbots can improve customer service while reducing costs. They handle routine customer queries so that service reps can focus on solving more difficult problems.
  • “Conversational commerce” is a term you will be hearing much more about in 2017. Chatbots are changing online user experiences, moving users away from complex websites and apps with structured menus to a simplified command-line interface where you simply ask questions and get the answers you need more quickly.