Are bots the next big thing?

What if you could free yourself of most of the apps on your mobile phone and still get the services and information you want, easier and faster?

And what if you could automate some of the most common support, website and e-commerce features of your business while cutting costs and raising service levels?

These are among the possibilities that bots (short for web robots) hold in store.

Bots are software applications designed to run automated tasks. Their functions range from the basic – like ordering food and booking airline reservations – to the more complex functionality of Siri and Google’s search algorithms.

Bots have been around since the earliest days of the internet. Like most everything else in technology, they’ve evolved, becoming more powerful and more sophisticated. There are bots for practically every application group, including shopping, content sharing, banking, workflow, food, entertainment, the internet of things and gaming.

Bots and artificial intelligence (AI) are combining to form personal assistants, or “master bots,” which control other bots on your behalf. For example, in the future, Siri may be able to answer your request to order takeout as well as choose your favorite restaurant and handle the transaction for you.

The implications for businesses are potentially huge: Rather than spending money building platform-specific apps, companies can more flexibly maintain fleets of bots to handle supply chains, transactions, customer service and more.

One category has soared to new heights: “chatbots.” Chatbots are applications that simulate conversation. They’re popping up on desktops and mobile devices with increasing frequency, offering customers help in finding stuff, answering (basic) questions and providing automated services.

What one immediately notices about chatbots is that the interface looks and feels a lot like a messaging application. This is by design. Instant messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, are far and away the most popular apps in the otherwise sluggish mobile applications ecosystem. These messaging platforms, and others like Slack and Skype, are frameworks within which third-party developers can deploy new bot services.

The growth of messaging bots also stems in part from advances in AI and natural language understanding. Anyone who has ever used Siri or Cortana can attest to the fact that natural language understanding is far from perfect. But building on the advances that Google and other tech giants are making in machine learning and neural networks, there is little doubt that AI will take an increasing central role in speech recognition and a host of applications from language translation and vision systems to expert systems and recommendation engines.

Are bots the new apps? Not yet, but the trend is clearly headed in that direction. According to the Economist: “The app economy is clearly maturing… The 20 most successful developers grab nearly half of all revenues on Apple’s app store. Building apps and promoting them is getting more costly. Meanwhile, users’ enthusiasm is waning, as they find downloading apps and navigating between them a hassle.”

Another factor that favors the bot ecosystem is the relative ease of building and deploying bots compared to device-specific apps. Because bots live on servers, and are not downloaded to your mobile device, they are much easier to create and update.

There’s no telling what the upside to bots will be and it’s a fair bet that apps won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Even so, judging by its current momentum and the strong backing by tech giants like Facebook and Microsoft, it’s clear that bots are right up there with artificial intelligence and voice interfaces as the next big thing.

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