Microsoft and Facebook engineer a bot-filled future

Beck Diefenbach—Reuters
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella delivers the keynote address during the Microsoft Build 2016 Developer Conference in San Francisco

BATH, N.C. — The service industry as we know it won’t ever be the same, and we only have ourselves to blame. Or, perhaps, thank. Earlier this month, both Microsoft and Facebook held independent developer conferences. Though these galas often target software engineers who build the apps and programs we all use on a daily basis, something was different this time around.Despite the two tech titans having almost nothing in common from a business standpoint, Facebook’s f8 and Microsoft’s BUILD managed to offer one eerily common thread: bots. Bots, as the industry has agreed to call them, are little more than computer programs that parse human language and attempt to engage in an action based on what it has been told. If you’ve used an iPhone with Siri over the past couple of years, you get the gist. Siri is decently capable of reminding you to grab groceries, but even today, I have to speak slower than I normally would in order to heighten the chances of her understanding me. Bots are the next generation of one’s digital assistant, and can be engaged both aurally and textually. The sudden focus on them ties back into the aforementioned events. Facebook introduced Bots for the Messenger Platform, enabling businesses the world over to create their own bot that can answer customer questions, take orders, file complaints and accomplish nearly everything that a typical customer service representative would.Meanwhile, Microsoft introduced Skype Bots. You can summon Murphy, a Bot “to find and create images for when questions can’t be answered by words alone,” or Summarize, a Bot “designed to give an overview of a web page if you don’t have time to read the whole thing.” If this all sounds too complicated to use in your own life, take heart: the next few years will see the brightest minds in software engineering work to make these bots more humanlike. Eventually, you’ll be able to do things like text NC State’s University’s Facebook Bot with questions about the college’s enrollment deadline or to purchase a VIP parking pass for a future home game. Though creating chatty bots that understand humans — and are empowered to act on their behalf — is something many assumed was decades away, we’ve found ourselves suddenly facing the future. Initially, the story around bots will focus on their hilarious (or frustrating) misunderstandings of our language. In time, however, these bots could very well upend the service industry, raising expectations for instant gratification from clients and enabling scores of customer service professionals to focus on other duties. What I’m most curious about is the impact of bots on education. Presently, students in classrooms are largely limited by the questions a teacher poses or the curriculum laid out years ahead of a pupil’s arrival. With bots and access to the internet at large, there’s a chance to give each student their own freedom to explore beyond a predetermined schedule, earning added credits and other awards for going above and beyond. As it stands, a student pecking away in Facebook Messenger is a professor’s worst nightmare. But with the right bots, the time spent in that virtual world could actually further one’s knowledge.