The Evolution of Bots: An Interview with Facebook Messenger's Anand Chandrasekaran
What a chatbot is now is much greater than before and the evolution is accelerating.
Bots have quickly taken over multiple spaces in the past two years, and companies choosing to climb on the chatbot train have continued to grow. The fever pitch of bot-mania has shown no signs of abating: in fact, it has only grown and will continue to grow. How did we get here? What have bots meant, and what will they mean to businesses in the future.
There’s one man who knows better than any other, and that is Anand Chandrasekaran, head of Messenger Partnerships at Facebook. Chandrasekaran’s work is focused on Messenger, which has quickly dominated as the preferred platform for developers and businesses alike. Over 100,000 developers have created over 100,000 active bots on the platform. That number is only growing.
What is a bot and why does your brand need one?
I like to tell people: “Don’t think of yourself as bot developer, think of yourself as building a great product.” Platforms and features on top of those platforms that did not exist a couple of years ago are now there, and you can do things that were previously not possible. The question that I would start with is, “What is a little bit of magic that you could do today, that you could not do before?
Once you think about that question, it’s good to look back at the journey that has led us here in the last year, and what a “bot” has meant in that period. As we see the ecosystem continue to develop, chatbots are starting to show a variety of features: menus, buttons, visual interfaces, AI, and some fully fledged apps that only exist on Messenger.
When we opened up the Messenger Platform, it was also used in very creative ways. There were chatbots that would give you the news, the weather -- all automated. As the platform evolved, there were all these tools that now become available on the platform, and it became clear that bots were much more that just chat. They had to -- and could -- do a lot more with those additional tools.
For example, the generation of bots that arrived with these tools could do much more in comparison to previous generations. In response to a question or conversation, they could open up a view and show you a flow that you could use to either consume a visual, socialize an experience, or introduce a richness; including sharing that with a friend. They could bring in work that the developer had done within a website into Messenger, which allowed people to leverage the richness and time that they had spent solving these problems, and pull them into Messenger.
Even when we look at how these human-powered sessions have evolved, a visually rich experience could be complemented with a human-powered session, if it was necessary. The new tools would allow for easy back-and-forth between these two.
Not surprisingly, a lot of the use cases in the early days were in customer care in various ways, where switching from another channel to Messenger and leveraging the consumer’s desire to message businesses dramatically alters the overall experience, compared to what was possible.
What are we seeing today in terms of bots?
If you look back at those technicalities and the various user interfaces, whether it was chat, AI or voice, you can actually see that these bots have become a lot more powerful, as opposed to what they were capable of doing a generation ago. They are automating, solving, and working for you and using these various interfaces to ask you clarifying questions, give you what you asked for, or respond to your request.
The other compelling solution for consumers is -- as opposed to searching for hours -- you could give this automated agent some information and the system could search for what’s good for you, and ping you back via notifications when it has what you need. There are travel bots out there, like HipMunk and SnapTravel among others, that leverage this to give you an offer or result when it’s ready, like when a fare drops to the right price. This way you’re not spending time finding it; these agents are helping you out with those.
Similarly, if you expressed interest in certain content like a favorite artist, music integration can tell you that there is new song from your favorite artist, and there is instant gratification. Each of these experiences can instantly lend themselves to be very social so not only can you consume it yourself, but you can share it with your friends. With tools like Chat Extensions, almost every natural use case becomes shareable, which is a very important solution that every developer looks for because most of their experiences are actually inherently social.
What is the value of bots right now?
The real promise, as we look at it, is that these are like an army of automated agents that are collaborating, working for you, unleashing value, and when they need more information they come back and ask you for more information. This is what you want an agent to do for you.
Because this has been powered on the back of platforms like Messenger, we are actually very bullish about these developers who we work with everyday. We feel like they have started to build tools that are valuable in terms of emotional connection and solving emotional and social needs, but also necessary. Some of these tools are very much what you want to do everyday, but you don’t wake up in the morning excited to do that, like paying your bills or getting receipts of all your purchases. It’s useful and necessary, and then there are some use cases that are valuable. We see a platform where tools are now available to build a combination of both of these.