-Over the next few years, chatbots will become a ubiquitous component of the customer service experience.
-Phone centers may become a thing of the past as customer service switches to digital interactions. Chatbots will enhance chat conversations by helping humans with micro-tasks and automatic replies, though it's unlikely that bots will replace humans entirely.
-New features like natural language processing are improving chatbots everyday, but engineers are still trying to find ways to make artificial intelligence learn quicker with less data.
As more companies come to embrace chat functions to complement or reduce human phone centers, rudimentary human-to-human chat conversations will soon be a thing of the past, according to experts in the field. In the next three to five years alone, chatbots will become nearly ubiquitous, and work seamlessly with human customer support agents to provide customers with efficient, personalized responses.
Though chatbots have been around since the release of ELIZA in 1966, vast amounts of data and enhanced artificial intelligence capabilities have pushed the technology into the mainstream commercial space in the last few years, creating a hybrid experience between human customer service agents and bots.
Salesforce first launched an SMS chatbot product in 2014, and has since expanded it to include Facebook Messenger. The company also offers a product called
"e really see bots as changing the job description and turning agents into intelligent problem solvers."
Flynn-Ripley described a future in which bots take over in "micro-moment exchanges" to relieve agents from doing tasks that "they don't even like doing." This could be as simple as information gathering, like asking a customer for their name and account number. But it could also look more like a conversational assistant, who gets smarter over time and can provide suggestions based off of data.
While the majority of customer service interactions are still over the phone, Flynn-Ripley said that call centers could soon undergo big changes as more companies embrace chat as the most natural way to interact.
A seamless experience
Leveraging its vast amount of user data, Facebook opened up its messenger platform to developers and businesses in April 2016.
It's since added functions like in-chat payment, built-in natural language processing (NLP), and what it calls Handover Protocol. NLP is the code that helps automated bots understand human messages more easily; Handover Protocol is Facebook's system the lets customer service agents and bots work within the same customer conversation.
Though still in beta mode, some companies like the beauty retailer Sephora implemented the protocol this summer.
It's not yet seamless, but that's the goal.
We have a lot of potential to make that seamless, either by making the process smooth, or by providing humans powers like quick replies," Kemal El Moujahid, the lead product manager for Messenger Platform and M at Facebook, told Business Insider.
Like Salesforce, Facebook already has a lot of data about its users. Since artificial intelligence and chatbots are only as smart as the data they have access to, chatbots built on top of Facebook's system will likely have more advanced conversation abilities than chatbots built from scratch.
Outside of the text box
Many consumers would rather handle customer service issues by chat than over the phone phone — 56% according to a Nielsen study commissioned by Facebook. But this doesn't mean the future of chatbots is limited to words.
Elsewhere in the space, companies like PullString are working on creating more interesting forms of audio chatbots. PullString started creating interactive voice features for children's toys, but it's since expanded to work on software and creative services that power the development of audio-based chat functions for skills on Amazon's Alexa platform.
Now, PullString focuses on developing personality-driven characters on Alexa, whose voice and word choice personify the brand as a whole.
Though the adoption of customer service chatbots has increased in recent years, there are still some technological barriers that need to be overcome before the technology is as seamless and helpful as its engineers dream it could be.
El Moujahid said that it's not hard to imagine a world in which individuals have their own personal assistant-style bots to help with mundane tasks, like calling the cable company.
"There's no reason to imagine at some point you won't have your assistant interacting with the brand's bot," El Moujahid said.