Artificial Intelligence a concept everyone is familiar with. And even if your only experience of AI is from watching films, you’ll have no trouble understanding bots. Bots are big news right now, with Facebook, Skype and a number of other services rolling out these assistants as you read this.

Bots summary:

  • In this context bots are computer assistants
  • They will appear in your favourite messaging app including Facebook Messenger and Skype
  • You will use them for booking flights, hotels, ordering takeaway and much, much more
  • Messaging apps will get a lot more features soon, such as money transfers

Update March 2017: In a recent Facebook blog titled Building Global Community, Mark Zuckerberg outlined - among other things - that Facebook is using AI to detect when users post comments which could indicate they are suicidal. Previously, the system relied upon other users reporting posts they considered to contain suicidal thoughts. Now, Facebook's review team will look at posts flagged by the AI system, and contact the user to offer support.

What is a bot?

The word bot is used to mean several different things. Gamers understand bots as AI characters in a game, while botnets are groups of hijacked computers which cyber criminals use for various tasks such as sending out millions of spam emails or even to attack and attempt to take down websites.

The bots we’re talking about here are essentially virtual assistants, much like Siri and Cortana. Only the latest generation of bots communicate via text rather than speech. Cortana already does this, both on Windows Phone and in Windows 10.

Bot history

Bots aren’t new. Far from it. Joseph Weizenbaum wrote a ‘bot’ called ELIZA in 1966 which grew to immense popularity. The program simulated a Rogerian therapist and you could ‘talk’ to it by typing, and it would respond in the way a therapist would with answers such as “How does that make you feel?”

It appeared to pass the Turing Test – a test in which humans had to decide if the responses on screen were from a human or a computer – but in reality it lacked intelligence and would fail the test under most conditions. It wasn’t until 2014 when Eugene Goostman, a program which simulates a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy was claimed to pass it (some disputed this claim).

Modern bots

The new bots are much like ELIZA and Eugene Goostman in that you can chat to them – by typing – and they will respond with sensible, intelligent answers. While mere chatbots exist (and have fooled many a human) the next generation will act more like personal assistants, doing everything from handling your Amazon returns to booking flights and ordering your lunch.

They go beyond the capabilities of Siri and Google Now, although in many respects they are similar. At a basic level, both ‘services’ are intelligent, but they’re a million miles from being as capable as a system like Jarvis in Iron Man. Jarvis, of course, doesn’t really exist (Mark Zuckerberg has declared that his personal challenge for 2016 is to build a Jarvis of sorts).

It appears that Zuckerberg has been inspired partly by the work Facebook has done with bots in Messenger. Facebook M is currently being trialled by a small group of people in California, but will no doubt soon be appearing in everyone’s Messenger app. It will have many of the capabilities we’ve mentioned: it can answer questions like Siri can, find a suitable birthday present for your daughter and book a table at a restaurant, but it will also be powered by real people who can assist when the AI technology reaches its limits.

Update 4 August: Microsoft has added five new chat bots to Skype this week, including IFTTT, SkyScanner, Hipmunk and Stubhub. IFTTT could be useful for those that actively use the service, while the SkyScanner video below shows how chat bots can be a part of a group conversation and provide assistance when booking flights:

Update 1 July: In a Facebook post, VP of messaging products David Marcus said that more than 11,000 chatbots have been added to Messenger. Developers have worked quickly in recent months (including Microsoft) to add bots to their messaging apps. Marcus also wrote that one big new feature is that the bots can now send videos, audio clips, GIFs and other files.

What are bots? Facebook M

Microsoft spent a considerable portion of its first Build keynote this year talking about bots and how they would make your life easier. In one demo, a bot was used to order a pizza. It sounds simple, but it highlighted how much easier it was to give your order through a bot rather than firing up an app, navigating through menus and selecting options.

Update 4 May: Microsoft added support for Facebook Messenger to its Bot Directory. The Microsoft Bot Framework lets developers easily integrate bots into their apps, so Facebook and other companies can make their bots run in Messenger.

Bots could replace apps

Bots let you use natural language to get tasks done. This is one of the reasons many people use Siri or Cortana to check the weather forecast, set a reminder or send an email: it’s just faster. (See also: 40 funny things to ask Cortana.)

What are bots? Cortana

The new generation of bots will be primarily text based. Unlike Cortana, you can’t type and get Siri to do your bidding, but typing is the preferable option in many situations. When you’re commuting or sitting at your office desk, talking into a microphone is less comfortable than typing on a screen or keyboard.

We all spend more time using messaging apps than pretty much any other these days, and it’s in these you’ll find the new bots. It should be no surprise that Microsoft is putting bots into Skype, and if you’ve ever used Slack, your first interaction is with Slackbot, which teaches you how to use the app.

But as bots increase in their capabilities, we’ll start to use apps less. Right now, you probably flip between a few different apps to book a weekend away. It’s the same if you’re search for something you want to buy locally: you might go to a website, search for a product, check stock and then get directions in Google maps to show you how to get there.

Bots will be able to do all this for you: no need to search Google any more, no need to launch the Uber app.

Anyone who has invested in smart home kit should benefit from a bot in the future. Today, you have to launch various apps to accomplish different tasks: turn up the heating, flick on the lights, play some music. In the (hopefully near) future, you’ll be able to get a bot to do it all in one go.

Bots: the future

It’s extremely likely the Apple is working hard behind the scenes to make Siri do this, because its capabilities and intelligence haven’t significantly improved since it launched. But more than anything, it needs to make Siri work universally rather than only kit designed for it.

Of course, bots will be limited by the platforms on which they run. So if you’re using Facebook M or Skype on an iPhone, it will be limited by what iOS can do, or what Apple will let it do. But Google is also busy building bots, and it will be fascinating to see what appears in both Android N and iOS 10.

Over the next few months we can expect bots to start appearing in the big messaging apps, and we can look forward to being able to order that lunchtime pizza in a snap. Download the latest version of Skype and you’ll see a new button that lets you add several experimental chatbots to your contacts. (Read more: Best free chatbots for iPhone.)

What are bots - Skype bots

You’ll quickly discover that bots aren’t all that intelligent yet and we’re certainly nowhere near being able to install a Jarvis in our home, but with gadgets such as Amazon’s Echo (below) already a reality, there’s certainly light at the end of the tunnel.

 What are bots? Cortana