Facebook’s chatbots are the new, new thing

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One of the major announcements at Facebook’s F8 conference last week is a new technology that you might never have heard of, but will be hearing a lot of in the near future. And it wasn’t virtual reality (VR), for which CEO Mark Zuckerberg paid US$2bn for VR headset maker Oculus Rift, whose headsets began shipping in the last month.

facebook-messenger-logo“Bots” or “chatbots” are suddenly the new, new thing in the tech industry and are set to make a huge impact on the way we interact with our digital world.

Bot is short for robot, software that automates tasks otherwise once performed by humans and increasingly augmented by artificial intelligence (AI). Instead of using the dedicated apps for shopping site Spring or airline KLM, Facebook’s is presuming you will be just as happy “chatting” to them via its Messenger app.

“I guarantee you’re going to spend way more money than you want on this,” Facebook’s head of messaging David Marcus joked at the launch. Never a truer word said in jest, you might add.

As renowned Silicon Valley analysts Benedict Evans tweeted: “I genuinely can’t remember the last time a concept blew up as quickly as bots”.

At first glance these chatbots look like a clever countermeasure for Facebook against its major online competitor, Google. They are a handy way to trap people inside Facebook’s walled garden, as keeping people within its ecosystem is known. When most internet users are looking for information, they go over to Google and search for it. But, if Facebook can offer you an alternative form of search that keeps users chatting in Messenger (900m users and 50m businesses) or WhatsApp (1bn users), why leave?

To millennials, who have grown up using text-based chat as a default means of communication, why would this kind of chatbot interaction appear anything but normal?

Chat has overtaken email and all other forms of message as the biggest means of interaction. Why shouldn’t it supplant searching too; especially if – as Facebook – you need a leg up over your arch-rival Google?

Facebook has one third of the internet users in the world accessing its pages, via the web, mobile or its app (the latter has been reportedly blamed for draining 15% of an iPhone’s battery life, 20% on Android, including when it isn’t being used).

But love it or hate it, Facebook is the internet’s intranet and where we all digitally congregated and socialise. Chatbots and VR are the next frontier of this interaction, Zuckerberg is betting.

It is, as The Economist notes, a “fight for dominance of the next era of computing”.

With a cover image that depicted “Marcvs Zvckerbergvs” photoshopped onto a statue of Roman Emperor Constantine, the magazine noted just how powerful the 12-year-old social network has become.

“Not since the era of imperial Rome has the ‘thumbs-up’ sign been such a potent and public symbol of power,” The Economist reported. “A mere 12 years after it was founded, Facebook is a great empire with a vast population, immense wealth, a charismatic leader, and mind-boggling reach and influence. The world’s largest social network has 1.6bn users, a billion of whom use it every day for an average of over 20 minutes each. In the Western world, Facebook accounts for the largest share of the most popular activity (social networking) on the most widely used computing devices (smartphones); its various apps account for 30% of mobile internet use by Americans. And it is the sixth-most-valuable public company on Earth, worth some $325bn.”

In Africa, the percentage of internet users is one out of every two. Facebook said last year it had 120m users, 96m (or 80%) of which are using mobile.

In the near future, many hundreds of millions of people will be chatting, booking tickets and buying clothes with bots. It’s all very sci-fi, isn’t it?

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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