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Chatbots Are Changing the Client-Service Game. Here's What You Need to Know. The advantages of the chatbot apps emerging in some fields seem promising, but they come with some concerns.

By Sahar Hashmi, MD-PhD

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As the world shifts towards advanced technologies — everything from the metaverse to tensor holography — people are wondering whether or not they'll have a positive impact. Chatbots in particular have been a recent topic of discussion, as they increasingly infiltrate our lives and continue to evolve during the current global health crisis.

While there will always disadvantages associated with such technologies, chatbot applications have several positive implications that shouldn't be overlooked.

Chatbots in the mental-health space

As a result of the ongoing global health crisis, millions of people around the world are suffering from depression. In some nations, individuals in isolation or quarantine have found conversational chatbots to be useful. One such application is Microsoft's China-based chatbot, Xiaoice. Customers chat and joke with the chatbot, whom they refer to as a "dear friend."

Xiaoice was first developed in 2014, and its sixth generation was released in 2016. Microsoft News reports, "Sometimes sweet, sometimes sassy and always streetwise, this virtual teenager has her own opinions and steadfastly acts like no other bot. There are 660 million users all around the world." As of July 2021, Xiaoice's valuation reached $1 billion, and it has now been spun off from Microsoft.

In 2016, at the same time when Xiaoice was gaining popularity in Asia, Microsoft introduced the Tay chatbot in the United States, then took it off the market within 24 hours because of Tay's controversial tweets, which caused "public relations damage." Microsoft recognized the inappropriateness of the Tay chatbot's tweets and apologized to the public.

Related: How Chatbots Save Time and Change How Business Gets Done

Woebot, another chatbot aimed at mental health, is also gaining ground, but there are far fewer users of such platforms in the United States than in China. The adoption rate for mental health chatbots is much lower in the Western region. One reason for this difference could be that there is limited data on whether patient outcomes related to mental-health concerns were improved by using these chatbots or not.

There is no doubt that in the near future, in order to combat the growing surge of depression amid the lack of providers, staff shortages and overwhelming demands on the healthcare systems associated with the ongoing health crisis, these mental-health chatbots or virtual agents might be programmed to serve as virtual psychologists. They could be part of customized integrated-technology solutions so users are not relying solely on chatbots or AI to resolve their mental-health issues.

Chatbots in retail

There has also been a recent uptick in the use of chatbots in online retail. Online retailers such as Amazon and Alibaba have incorporated chatbots to provide faster and more efficient service to the millions of additional customers shopping online during lockdowns. They handle sophisticated tasks such as refunds, product exchanges and the location of missing products, providing convenient 24/7 assistance and satisfying customer needs. Many customers prefer the option of quick service through a chatbot rather than waiting for a human agent to answer.

Now, chatbots provide convenient ways to bank online, learn languages, plan travel and more. Additionally, a chatbot from Whole Foods Market has even made its way into our kitchens. The Whole Foods chatbot brings the taste experience longed for by restauranteurs and foodies right into the home, providing customers with recipes of interest based on searches using keywords or food emojis. The recipes can be customized to cater to specific needs such as a vegan or gluten-free diet, which makes our lives in the kitchen more convenient and could eventually help individuals struggling with obesity.

Related: The Rise of the Chatbots

Concerns that come with chatbot apps

Along with convenience, these chatbots also come with security and privacy concerns. Given the frequency of data breaches and cyber attacks in the tech industry, it is likely that chatbots are at risk as well. It is also possible that the data selection used to train these chatbots might be biased toward certain populations.
Other concerns include the socio-economic impact on human society, such as increased joblessness. According to a report from McKinsey, "Approximately 22% of jobs in Europe (or 53 million) could be automated by 2030." Similarly, a recent report from the World Economic Forum states, "The workforce is automating faster than expected, displacing 85 million jobs in next five years."

Related: Will a Chatbot Really Save Your Company Money?

The convenience of new technologies always comes with concerns about their effects. There's also the possibility that the use of conversational AI apps and chatbots may limit human-to-human interactions, thus creating more distance between us. These concerns sometimes hinder the adoption of such advancements, but we shouldn't turn a blind eye to the many advantages that come with them too.

Sahar Hashmi, MD-PhD

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO of Myriad Consulting LLC

Dr. Sahar Hashmi is the CEO of Myriad Consulting, LLC and a Harvard faculty member. She is an MD with a Ph.D. from MIT's business school and has a master's in systems design. Her expertise includes generative AI, modern care delivery, digital health & transformation and the metaverse.

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