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Chat bots in the News

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2016 has been a great year for chat bot developers and the platforms that make them possible. However, it’s not just the techy and the geeky types that are paying attention to the newest social media trend. Popular and reliable news sources all over the world are covering chat bots and even offering their own chat bots. It’s fair to say that this is just the beginning.  Here is a quick look at some of the chat bot coverage over the last few weeks.

Washington Post – “The Next Frontier of Online Activism is ‘Woke’ Chatbots

The article first discusses a bot called @staywokebot on Twitter which is intended to keep morale high among activists, particularly during the Black Lives Matter movement according to the article, as well as provide contact information for a user’s senator based on their location. The article also mentions briefly bots from congress and the NRA. In the near future, woke” bots will take over the repetitive tasks, such as “rallying the community, calling for action and facing down the angry replies” that goes along with online activism.

The Huffington Post – “The Return of the Chatbots: Experiment, Engage, and Be Genuine

Chat bots offer benefits to both consumers and marketers. Consumers, in an already on-demand culture, now have even more information and services available to them right in the preferred messaging app. Marketers now have a new way to get their brand and their business to the people who are interested in it. Via chat bots, restaurants can provide a way for their customers to order, pay, and have their food delivered without ever having to close the messaging app. Other chat bots are even more interactive including facial recognition to provide a more personal experience.

Time – “Profess Your Love for the Pumpkin Spice Latte Directly by Chatting With the Starbucks Drink on Facebook”

This article is about a very specific chat bot called The Real PSL. The Real PSL allows you to “communicate” with the famous Starbuck’s drink the Pumpkin Spice Latte which has come under scrutiny for not having any pumpkin flavoring included in the ingredients. The functionality of the bot is limited to a few phrases but it does give some insight into what Starbucks imagines is the personality of it’s famous, or infamous, Pumpkin Spice Latte.

The Huffington Post (UK) – “Facebook Lets AI Chatbots Send You Ads Through Messenger”

As synonymous with Facebook as “friend list” or “like/unlike,” ads are now making their way to Messenger which the article describes as “one of Facebook’s few remaining ad-free properties.” This article points out how Facebook is increasingly a way for businesses to reach potential customers, something it already did precision via targeted ads or posts on someone’s timeline. The article also quotes the product manager of Facebook as issuing what sounds like a defense of chat bots and their ability to send messages and promotions, by saying that any interaction will be “initiated by the person receiving the messages.”

 

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The Top Chatbots on Facebook Messenger

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Five months after Mark Zuckerberg announced that developers would be able to access a Messenger platform that will allow them to create bots and there are thousands available. My favorites are beer delivery, the ability to chat with anybody in the world, and a bot that automatically unfollows your Twitter followers if they unfollow you. There many, many more and this is a review of some of the best.

HealthTap

A diagnostic bot, HealthTap will send recommendations from doctors or articles based on symptoms you send to the bot via messenger. The bot, and the company, come pretty close to suggesting it can replace the initial doctor visit which is usually limited to a description of symptoms followed by a diagnosis or suggested next steps. However, after sending your initial query, you are first presented with brief terms stating that you understand the answers are informational and not medical advice. The best feature is the ability to get an actual response from a doctor, if you don’t mind waiting a couple of days, and a premium service for $25.

Kayak

For frequent travelers, the Kayak bot is pretty neat, especially if you booked your trip through Kayak and have an account. If you are just starting your search for a hotel or flight, you can tell the Kayak bot where you want to go then it will ask a few questions and send you recommendations based on your preferences. The best thing is that you can start pretty general. The bot even suggests as an example query, “where can I go for 500 dollars?” If you have a Kayak account, you can receive your itinerary and any changes through messenger.

Hello Jarvis

Hello Jarvis is a simple but effective personal assistance. You chat with Jarvis, an owl and after typing the name of your city, Jarvis sets your time zone and then he’s ready to work. It’s best to keep your requests to the most basic and perhaps in the very near future. I asked Jarvis to remind me to get my oil changed in a week and it set a reminder for 12:00 AM. Still handy perhaps because I would wake up to the reminder but I would be irritated if my phone woke me up at midnight. Reminding myself to call mom after work is better because it sets a more realistic time of 5:00 PM that same day.

MemeGenerator Bot

As ridiculous as they can be at times, memes can come in handy and if you want to be specific with your message, it can be a bit of a challenge finding just the right picture. However, the MemeGenerator Bot has that part under control. All you need to do is supply the text and the bot will provide a picture complete with your clever phrase. MemeGenerator Bot even supplies an image which is ready to be downloaded and shared or forwarded via Messenger.

Alex WikiMessenger gets an honorable mention as a bot that provides a shortcut to Wikipedia articles. Many of these can be accomplished via a Google search but the convenience of having the functionality in Messenger is the bonus. Stay tuned as new bots are being added daily!

 

 

charpioThe Top Chatbots on Facebook Messenger
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Three Successful Chatbot Startups with Over $1 Million in Funding

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Trim

Launched in early 2016, Trim has secured more than $2.2 million from investors that includes Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures. The chatbot, which can be linked via SMS or Facebook, securely connects to your bank and analyzes your transactions. A user can then begin a conversation with Trim receive information about your account balance, recent credits or debits, the amount of money spent on Uber last month and finally provide a list of subscriptions with automatic deductions.

Trim can also cancel the automatic subscriptions. The chatbot can cancel most subscriptions without any further action from the user but there are some, like identity theft protection, that will require the user to cancel but the chatbot will tell you how if you ask it to cancel it for you. There is a final set of subscriptions which requires a phone call or certified mail. Trim can cancel these for you but it will cost $6.00.

The founders of the chatbot, Thomas Smyth and Daniel Petkevich, hope to one day replace your mobile banking app. To date, they estimate that they have saved users more than $6 million.

Assist

Founders Robert Stephens, also founder of GeekSquad, and Shane Mac, former director of product at Zaarly, have been working on Assist since May of 2015 and the chatbot went live in January 2016. The duo and their team have raised $5.5 million in funding from several sources.

The chatbot, available on SMS, Messenger, Kik, Twitter, Telegram and Slack, aggregates APIs so that users can employ the services of several different apps or websites right from there messaging app or SMS. Assist can do everything from get deliver food for you, hire a courier, and buy event tickets. There are 10 options to choose from. The chatbot integrates with Uber, Lyft, StubHub, Eat24 and courier service Postmates among several others.

Assist hopes to “create a world class messaging experience” and in doing so, render some of the other apps we download for convenience useless.

ReplyYes

With $2.5 million in funding, ReplyYes is a little different from other chatbots in that it combines technology with a human touch. ReplyYes has two e-commerce ventures: a vinyl record store and a graphic novel store. In its first eight months of existence, the vinyl record store, called The Edit, has sold $1 million worth of records.

The chatbot uses an algorithm to recommend purchases based on previous behavior including purchase history at the online store. Users subscribe to have an album recommendation sent to their phones every day and have the option to text back to indicate that they like or dislike the album. The chatbot uses this information to build an idea of the user’s musical preference. If a user indicates that they like an album, accomplished simply with a “yes” reply, they are sent a link for purchase.

The human element comes in when a subscriber asks a specific question at which point a customer service rep will step in to engage with the user. The CEO, David Cotter, former Amazon.com general manager, says the company would like to create a record store-like experience.

charpioThree Successful Chatbot Startups with Over $1 Million in Funding
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Top Chatbots on Skype

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Perhaps slightly behind the curve when it comes to chatbots, Microsoft has recently stepped it up for Skype. First introducing chatbots in April 2016 and introducing partner-inspired bots in August of 2016. Here is a quick look at some of the best.

Summarize

Summarize basically tries to provide a CliffsNotes version of any URL you send to the chatbot in Skype. This would be a really handy service if it worked properly but a couple of tests left 90% of the article ignored. Each time, Summarize appeared to only summarize the first and second or third paragraphs. This chatbot still has ways to go to be effective but if it could accurately summarize an article it would really be something.

Murphy

The developers of Murphy describe it as an experimental chatbot that can answer “What if…” questions. I asked Murphy “What if the United States won the World Cup?” and it responded with a photo of several stars from countries all over the world from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with Abraham Lincoln’s face super imposed Mario Balotelli’s face. It’s certainly entertaining. I also asked Murphy “what if Putin was American?” and I got a photo of a Native American with Putin’s face. Murphy requests feedback on his answer each time via emoticons.

IFTTT

IFTTT, short for “If This, Then That,” is a recipe bot which links several accounts based on if-then scenarios. The chatbot is listed as a “Skype Certified” bot but it’s functionality relating to Skype doesn’t have much to do with interacting with the bot via a chat. Instead, Skype is one of the many applications that IFTTT can integrate with. Users will need to register at IFTTT.com then give the bot access to each of the applications for which you want to create recipes. An example would be “if I receive an email via Gmail from my wife, send me a message via Skype.”

Mix4Me

Mix4Me is not a Skype Certified chatbot. This just means that it could be a fake chatbot. It doesn’t mean that it is a fake chatbot but Skype Certified chatbots are definitely not fake bots. Mix4Me is a very straightforward “DJ” bot for Spotify users. The developers of Mix4Me aim to save users from “getting tired of hearing the same music.” Once you find the bot on Skype just send a message with an artist or band and Mix4Me will send back a link for a Spotify playlist. The best part is that there it is not necessary to provide Mix4Me with your Spotify credentials.

LightBot

Also not a Skype Certified chatbot, LightBot is an “answering engine.” Think back to the days of Ask Jeeves and that’s what LightBot offers but via Skype. The only downside to this chatbot is that when you submit a question, it doesn’t tell you that it’s thinking so you’re left wondering if you did something wrong. However, the answers were impressive in a few test questions providing detail and facts.

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Automate Your Business with Chatbots

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Running a small business requires a lot of time and dedication. In the realm of the internet, there are dozens of tasks to do to maintain a strong presence and attract and retain customers. Automation allows you to complete some of these tasks with less work, freeing up valuable time. Let’s consider 5 aspects of your small business that can benefit from automation.

E-mail

Many companies send out a weekly, or biweekly, email newsletter to customers, telling them about new products or services and special deals. These emails can be similar to the flyers that you receive in the mail, or they can be more personal. But remembering to send the weekly email on Tuesday and making sure to send it to all of the right people, including new people who have joined the list since last week, but not people who have opted out, can be a major headache. MailChimp is a free product that handles those problems for you, leaving you to just write the email, and set it to send on the correct date.

Chatbots

While these are relatively new entrants to the automation market, they create a way for your company to interact in a slightly more personal way with the clients. Rather than having someone available all the time to chat with customers who try to message your business, you can set up a chatbot to handle common questions and problems. While bots can’t yet take the place of a human customer service agent for all interactions, many interactions are repeated over and over, and can be automated using a chatbot.

Digital Marketing

A lot of work goes into creating and maintaining digital ad campaigns. Fortunately, there are services available to automate this process. For example, Needls is an automated agency that handles advertising on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It automatically generates your ads, based on information that you provide it with, and targets them to users posting about things relevant to your product or service, whether that’s photography, catering, gift baskets, or anything else.

Sales

Companies like Salesforce make products to help manage contacts and work with your sales team more effectively. They track metrics to do with performance, as well as providing sales forecasts based on previous sales and managing leads on potential new clients. They also automatically manage your contacts, maintaining history, internal discussion, and social media insights in one place. For businesses where sales reps are essential, these products can be real time savers.

Internet

When you have to keep track of things across a variety of apps, it can eat up more time than you expect. For example, keeping all of your email attachments in a Dropbox may seem like a great idea, but it takes a surprising amount of time to do it. Zapier lets you connect your various apps and social media accounts and create workflows to automate some of these straightforward processes. These workflows, called zaps, can automatically take info from one app and use it with another, saving you from tedious copy-pasting, and other mind-numbing tasks.

In order to compete with larger businesses, small businesses increasingly need to automate. They can’t afford to waste time with jobs that can be done for them by a program, when other jobs need a personal touch. These may not be all of the ways that automation can simplify running your small business, but it offers some great ways to get started.

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How do Facebook Messenger Chatbots Work?

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Starting in April, Facebook has introduced chatbots to its widely used messenger service. Chatbots are programs, usually created by a company or brand, designed to interact with customers in a conversation-like interface. Their widespread use began with Slack’s slackbot in late 2015, and has quickly been followed by offerings from Kik, Microsoft, and, of course, Facebook.

So how does Facebook’s new chatbot system work? A conversation with a chatbot will begin with some kind of welcome screen or initial message from the bot. This message lets users know more about the bot and invites them to use it. For example, Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot says “Purr purr…Nice to meet you J Tell me your city or location and I’ll tell you a nice location close by”. The user can then click “Get started” to start interacting with the bot.

Facebook then offers a couple of different ways to interact with the bot. Recently, it’s added buttons, allowing users to respond to the bot by tapping one of a selection of pre-written answers. This method ensures that users don’t become frustrated by trying to guess at the right syntax to use when interacting with each bot. It can also display a ribbon of responses to a query, which provide options for the user. In the case of Mica, on learning your location, he presents a ribbon of possible places to visit with a picture, along with two options beneath each location: “Show Details” and “Navigate me there”. Both of these options then open up other pages to provide further details. At the end of the ribbon, Mica offers an option to show more results.

A bot can also send gifs, text based messages, pictures, and videos. This array of possible responses allows you to tailor your bot to respond in the most effective way to different queries. While providing an array of options is great for bots that return news stories or restaurant recommendations, it isn’t the most effective choice for bots that offer a weather forecast. These may opt for text, gifs, pictures, or all three.

Finally, Facebook is offering access to its wit.ai Bot Engine. This is a natural language processing platform, designed to make interacting with bots more natural. It takes user input and breaks it down into data categories like “intent”, which describes what the user is trying to get the app to do, and then relevant other categories. For example, if asked to translate something, the intent is translation, and the engine will also return the text to be translated and the target language. This system helps developers to create an easier to interact with bot.

Because Messenger Bots are still in their beta phase, all bot submissions are carefully reviewed before being allowed out into the marketplace. This process helps to ensure the best possible experience, both for users and for developers. Although the offerings are still limited, there is a lot of potential for chatbots in Facebook Messenger as a platform for users to access information without downloading yet another app.

charpioHow do Facebook Messenger Chatbots Work?
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Writing a Chatbot for Slack – How to Make a Slackbot

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Maybe you’ve heard about Slack, a platform for team communication, designed to help cut down on internal email. Slack lets you communicate with team members in a conversational style, rather than the more one-sided emails, and lets you send attachments, create subgroups, and search through your archive for previously agreed upon decisions.

In addition to this functionality, Slack also offers chatbots, their first bot being named Slackbot. Slackbot helps users by answering questions about using Slack, and can be programmed with responses to specific group questions. For example, it may have a programmed answer for when group members ask what the Wifi password is.

Beyond Slackbot, many chatbots have emerged to complement Slack’s functionality. Here, we’re going to examine some popular ones.

Guru is a chatbot designed to maintain a database of information that has been discussed by your Slack team, in order to make it more readily accessible. It can search for and post knowledge, as well as verify knowledge accuracy, essentially creating an encyclopedia of the team’s knowledge. This bot is largely designed to prevent some users from having to answer the same questions over and over, by allowing a bot to give the answer once it has learned it.

Ace is another popular bot, used to manage to-dos, assign tasks, and create polls and surveys. It can also track company expense claims, and request images of the receipts, in order to simplify the work for claimants. Ace, like guru, is a pull bot, meaning that it does not pop up trying to tell you about things, but works quietly in the background, and responds only when you talk to it.

Howdy is a bot designed to facilitate virtual meetings, and help you get updates from different groups. He can be taught different sets of questions to ask team members, and can be automated to have regular meetings with teams and ask a predefined set of questions. He then collates those responses for you and presents them to you via Slack, allowing you to collect team information quickly, without going to each group and asking the same questions.

While push bots, who talk to you without being spoken to first, can be a little more annoying to users trying to keep a clean workspace, they can also be useful, or just plain cute.

On the cute side, we have Humblebot, a chatbot that sends you advice every morning about how to be a better person. On the more useful side, Paperbot monitors all of your Slack channels and creates a daily digest of content posted by team members. To make it more useful, team members can hide channels from their digest, allowing them to focus on their projects, while giving them the option of seeing an overview of what other groups are working on.

Apart from more productivity and communication oriented bots, Slack also has bots that play games like Connect 4 and Poker. These bots offer a fair bit of added functionality within the Slack interface, and if you’re on Slack, I encourage you to check them out.

charpioWriting a Chatbot for Slack – How to Make a Slackbot
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What is a chatbot?

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It’s hard to keep up with innovations in technology today. As computers get smarter and smarter, more and more tasks are being taken over by artificial intelligence based software. One technology coming into increasing use today is the Chatbot, or bot for short. Even if you’d never heard the word before today, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve interacted with one. chatbots are appearing in increasing numbers on services like Facebook Messenger, Kik, and Slack.

So what is a chatbot? Essentially, chatbots are services that you interact with via a chat interface. Typically, these bots are rule based, meaning that they have set outputs for specific inputs. For example, a parcel tracking bot might respond to “Find my parcel” with a response like “Please enter the tracking number”. Then, when the tracking number was entered, it would return the tracking information. Sound familiar? In some respects, chatbots are a lot like voice-based services like Apple’s Siri.

While a solely rule-based bot can work perfectly well, many bots also integrate some AI. This allows them to adapt better to user input and learn to handle different wordings for requests, beyond the ones that the programmers came up with when initially programming the bot. Bots that incorporate artificial intelligence are more flexible than rule-based bots and can develop to interact more naturally with real people.

Just what can you use a bot for? Simple applications include things like providing information about the current weather, or the forecast for the next few days. In the realm of the more complex, bots can be used for shopping, with users telling the bot what they are looking for, and the bot offering selections that it thinks the user will like, and then saving the chosen items to a shopping cart.

A bot can also be used to help with scheduling, to provide news updates, and to provide any other straight-forward service that the creator can imagine. The only restriction, apart from the skill of the developer, is that bots provide a relatively contained service, usually even more so than an app. A news app, for example, can provide you with local or world news, and might provide an article summary if asked, but it sure can’t tell you what the best local pizzeria is, much less let you order a pizza.

Well, so what? We already have apps and websites. Why do we need bots too? People are spending increasing amounts of time on messenger services, rather than on traditional websites or social media. Much as the increased use of smartphones led companies to develop apps, the increased use of messenger services is driving a move towards bots as a platform for customer interaction.

Consumers don’t really want to phone your business in most cases, especially not to get responses to relatively simple questions or to access fairly straight-forward services. While many businesses have been addressing this by hiring people to chat with customers through a service built into their website, this can quickly become very expensive. True, a live person can handle problems that an automated system can’t, but in many cases, the cost outweighs the benefits. The chatbot offers a balance between economy and the type of instant accessibility that consumers increasingly expect.

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How Are Chatbots Being Used by Businesses?

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Chatbots are essentially services with a chat based user interface. This means that you type them messages, like “3 day forecast”, and receive messages in return with answers, in our example, the forecast for your location for the next three days. With Facebook unveiling their first chatbots at the recent F8 conference, they are the currently trending tech innovation. So how are today’s businesses using bots?

Let’s look at some examples.

Everlane, an online clothing retailer, was an early entry into the bot platform, and only went halfway. Everlane provides shipping updates via their messenger bot. If the customer tries to further interact with the bot, they are passed on to a real customer service representative. This entry, debuted in 2015, was only the first step into the realm of chatbots.

Sephora’s chatbot, which launched recently on the messaging platform Kik, is a major entry in the style/fashion market. It begins with some questions for the user about their age group, make-up brand preferences and must-have items. After that, it is meant to provide an experience like interacting with a specialist in a store. Depending on your interests, it can provide how-to videos and tips, as well as product reviews and recommendations on lipstick, nails, and contouring, for a start. While users are aware that they are interacting with a bot, Sephora’s bot is an example of a great bot meant to personalize the brand a bit for younger users.

Similarly, H&M has developed a chatbot to recommend outfits. In this case, it gets to know your style by having you select which of two offered outfits you like a couple times. From there, it provides outfit recommendations.

Taco Bell has created Tacobot, a chatbot used on the popular Slack messaging platform. This bot lets you order your food by having a conversation, as one might with a waiter, rather than by filling out a lengthy online order form. While it may still have a slightly mechanical feel, the chat based interface is slightly more natural, and integrates the experience of ordering food with a service that customers are already signed into, rather than forcing them to open up a new app or website to order their food.

Mitsuku is an entry deployed on Kik and Skype, as well as via a flash game online at Mousebreaker Games. Created by Pandorabots, Mitsuku is artificial intelligence based and learns from conversations that it has. Rather than being a narrowly focused offering, Mitsuku is meant to act as a companion, and can answer questions and give advice on a variety of topics, including job interviews and relationships. While bots created for specific brands and companies are unlikely to reach this level of sophistication, one can see the potential for a bot having a conversation with users about clothing, food, law, or personal finances.

While entries from most companies are still limited, the demand for personalized feeling interaction with a company is there. Rather than the one dimensional interaction of an order form or online shopping cart, people increasingly want personalized service from the comfort of their homes. This desire is gradually being fulfilled by chatbots offered by various companies. Have you tried one?

charpioHow Are Chatbots Being Used by Businesses?
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Using Vimium with Gmail (including Gmail Keyboard Shortcuts)

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If you haven’t already, install Vimium and go mouse free. After a few days of training, your productivity will go up dramatically. Basically, Vimium makes every link in Chrome a keyboard shortcut – a powerful tool to speed up your online productivity.

One issue I had was that Vimium was disabled by default on Gmail. Gmail has many internal keyboard shortcuts, but I have a couple of Gmail extensions that don’t support shortcuts. By installing Vimium I was able to add shortcuts inside Gmail to those extensions.

Inside the Vimium documentation a reference on how to configure Gmail to work with all of the internal shortcuts plus Vimium. But, that page didn’t come up with a Google search.

So, to configure Vimium to work with Gmail (where Gmail shortcuts are on):

How to configure Vimium to work with Gmail.

How to configure Vimium to work with Gmail.

Here is the list of keys to insert into the KEYS field:

?jknpxercgils#uld/

Make sure Gmail keyboard shortcuts are enabled.

Michael CharpUsing Vimium with Gmail (including Gmail Keyboard Shortcuts)
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