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BW Businessworld

‘Bots Will Save A Lot Of Time, Resources’

The co-founder & CEO of GupShup believes that with bots, every aspect of human activity that is related to computers will be affected in a broader way

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Messaging apps are an untapped medium for customer engagement. It’s where people spend their time most and it’s where they are at their most responsive and receptive. Putting messaging together with artificial intelligence and natural language processing, developers are creating bots to offer services, shopping and more on chat bots in messaging apps. GupShup is a company that provides the tools to build bots ­— a phenomenon that is about to explode in the next few months. Beerud Sheth, co-founder & CEO of GupShup, a mobile social messaging service addressing the marketing needs of brands and businesses, talks to BW Businessworld’s Mala Bhargava about the next paradigm shift in computing. Edited excerpts:

Bots used to be robots. But surely that’s not what they mean today, when they say bots are going to take up where apps left off?

Bots is a very generic term, which could mean any autonomous piece of software. It’s a much abused term. When you more narrowly define it as messaging or chat bots, that will become immediately relevant to what people mean when they are talking about bots today.

Messaging is just one part of what we do in our connected world. Why would you say chat bots are so significant?
I see technology as having various paradigms. If you look back at the 80s, our primary use was computers. For years we used computers, Windows or the Mac, and you would work with major software applications. The coming of the browser was another landmark and with it, access to Websites. Then in 2000, we had another shift — to the mobile. Slowly apps made an appearance. Now, as part of that trend, another transition is the use of the messaging app, which is the No. 1 thing used by everyone. Now, because people aren’t using all these other apps as much, it’s obvious that if everyone is inside a messaging app, why don’t we just let the users stay there and enable them to do all the other things they want to do right there. And that’s where bots come in.

What users will be able to do with bots in messengers?
The possibilities are endless. Exchanging a message with a friend or family member is one thing, but with bots you can also now message, for say, getting a pizza, or having flowers, book a taxi, shop for a book, etc. The software programme on the other side can respond to millions of messages, unlike a human, and this means businesses can use the technology to engage with their customers. So in this context, a bot is just a software programme that can send and receive messages. And it’s only the latest reincarnation of the desktop client, the Website, or the app.

Is the chat bot likely to just stay all text?
Oh no. The messaging bot is just using the underlying channel, which could be Facebook, or WhatsApp, or Slack, or anything. But it can go way beyond text, depending on how you build it. So it can do whatever the platform allows it to do, which could be anything from text messages to buttons to interactive fields to photos to video and voice — all of that will be possible. So the channels are now very rapidly adding capabilities to allow bots to communicate in richer ways. In some cases you just want to click on cake, in others, you want to type and explain what you want, in others you want to hear something — that’s how it’s going to work.

And all of this is going to be centred around selling?
Not quite. This is much beyond commerce. What are humans going to do with computers? For example, consuming news. You can have a news bot to help you consume content. Dating, finding a job, finding freelance workers, collaborating with someone, and even a lot of enterprise activity will be possible through bots. Checking bank balance, doing a survey, checking figures for something at work, etc. It’s just such a broad thing that it can affect every aspect of human activity that’s related to computing.

Would you say that call centres are a kind of pre-bot?
Well, of course, call centres are humans responding to humans, but bots could quite radically transform call centres. If customers send questions to a bot 15 to 20 per cent of the messages can be handled by the bot while the rest of the messages get escalated to a human, this saves a lot of time and resources.

Which brings me to the obvious question: what happens to everyone’s jobs?
A lot of human jobs are definitely going to be replaced by bots. But of course, in the Silicon Valley, one of the biggest debates is we have going on around AI (Artificial Intelligence) matching can taking over what people do. This is a “problem” beyond bots. AI is getting smarter and smarter and is on track to take over a lot of human jobs, specially the repetitive ones. Messaging bots are not the reason for it.

Bots are going to learn from humans. When things go wrong in the conversation, where do you go?
How we train bots is going to be critical. But don’t underestimate. Over time, bots will be able to handle more and more complicated interactions that humans won’t be able to. As we build bots and best practices for using them, an important thing will be to set the right expectation and meet that expectation. With humans, it’s difficult to control expectations which are often raised too much. A bot can be configured to just understand a few things and stick to doing that.

Does limiting bots not simultaneously reduce a customer’s choices?
Yes, while you may not be able to specify that you want extra olive oil in your spaghetti (at least not without a handoff to a human), look at it this way: many millions more will be able to order a pizza almost instantly. There will be thousands of developers making a variety of bots and where you want to limit them is going to be up to the developers. You’re going to see the same diversity with bots that you have with websites and apps. You’re going to see millions of bots, specially because of how AI capability is growing, so bots won’t be just one thing or a one size fits all.

Are people in the industry quite certain that bots will succeed?
There will be an explosion of bots. Some will be good and some will be bad. Some will succeed at what they set out to do and some will die away. It’s survival of the fittest, just as with apps. We’re still very early in the evolution of bots today. At this point we can only say that it’s a new phenomenon, it has a lot of potential, it can be a game changer, but how it will really go, it’s too early to say. I’m talking about the fact that it’s a sociological phenomenon as much as it is a technological one. While chat bots are very primitive right now, one can see the potential and a number of large companies have started working on them including Facebook and Microsoft.

How are companies going to monetise bots?
I’m wildly optimistic about that. First, the big companies like Facebook, etc. will obviously get more engaged users spending more time on the platform. The tool makers and enablers like us are selling the shovel to those in the gold rush. Then, the Ubers and Olas and Unilevers and everyone will be able to ramp up their existing businesses because it’ll be so much easier to reach customers — no one has to download an app and wade through options. It will be simpler to place an order. And I think that there will be whole clan of creative bot developers who will make bots that we can’t even imagine today.

[email protected]; @malabhargava.


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