Zuckerberg’s Facebook Messenger launches ‘chat bots’ platform – USA TODAY

7 months ago Comments Off on Zuckerberg’s Facebook Messenger launches ‘chat bots’ platform – USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO — You already chat with friends on Facebook Messenger. Now Messenger wants you to chat with businesses and get updates from them, too.

That’s the future Facebook pitched Tuesday at f8, its annual conference for software developers in San Francisco.

“We think you should message a business just the way you would message a friend,” Mark Zuckerberg said on stage at f8.

He laughed: “To order flowers on 1-800-Flowers,you never have to call 1-800-Flowers again.”

Facebook handed the more than 50 million businesses on Messenger the tools needed to build interactive experiences, or “chat bots,” that reach the 900 million people who use the messaging app each month.

Chat bots are chat robots — interactive software powered by artificial intelligence often with an assist from humans — that are designed to simulate human conversation. They are popping up on messaging services where you can use them to perform simple tasks.

While they are not yet common in the U.S. and Europe, chat bots have taken off in Asia, where messaging services such as WeChat help users schedule doctor’s appointments, shop for the latest styles, play games or the lottery and send money to friends.

Facebook has gingerly experimented with businesses communicating over messenger. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines recently began allowing passengers to check in, get flight updates, make travel changes and talk to customer service reps in its Messenger app.

You can hail a ride on Uber and Lyft by tapping a new transportation option inside Messenger. You can ping hotel chain Hyatt with questions about your accommodations, and you can track your purchases through online retailer Everlane.

Starting Tuesday, there is that and more. Messenger users now have a half dozen more bots on Messenger to try, with another dozen or more coming soon, says Messenger boss David Marcus.

Eventually, “people will be able to interact with all kinds of different services and brands,” Marcus told USA TODAY.

Coming to Messenger soon, users can get a cheeky weather forecast — via chatting with an animated cat in a yellow raincoat.

Other chat bots will help you interact with online services: send a message to the Postmates courier hauling your groceries across town or the GoButler assistant picking up your dry cleaning. Check on the shipping status of the 3.1 Phillip Lim parka you ordered on the Spring app or get news outlets from your favorite outlet — all from the Messenger app.

Users who aren’t quite ready for that kind of messaging intimacy can tap a button to mute or block communications from businesses they no longer want to hear from.

Facebook’s M digital assistant

Facebook Messenger is also giving software developers access to the tool it used to build M, its digital assistant that uses a combination of human and artificial intelligence to order take-out, send flowers or answer questions. The idea is to give developers the ability to build more complex bots that can interpret intent from natural language and continuously learn so they can better respond to requests.

“If you can make it as easy as sending a text, you open up all types of new activity,” said Robin Chan, CEO of Operator, which is part of the Facebook Messenger launch.

The announcements are part of Facebook’s push to own more of consumers’ “mobile moments,” as the arms race with Google and other rivals for people’s eyeballs and wallets on mobile devices escalates, says Forrester Research analyst Julie Ask.

Facebook is looking to get people to conduct more communication and commerce on its services. In this case, it’s banking that people will prefer bots to mobile apps.

While Facebook Messenger has considerable heft and influence, teaching consumers a whole new behavior will be “very slow going,” Ask said.

“If I have a problem with a flight today, I call the airline. I will have to be taught to engage with the airline in a different way,” she said.

Even then, it will take years of advances in artificial intelligence before bots can be taught to handle more than simple, mundane tasks.

“I say to my Amazon Echo: Play Bruce Springsteen. I don’t say: Play my favorite Bruce Springsteen,'” Ask said. “Chat bots may be better than me getting on the phone with somebody but they are not going to top every other mobile experience yet.”

What is happening: Companies are setting aside concerns over forking over customer data to Facebook and they are experimenting with reaching and interacting with customers there as people spend less time on websites and only regularly use a handful of mobile apps. Ticketmaster and Eventbrite, for example, plans to start selling events directly on Facebook later this month.

Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson says businesses are going where their customers are. “Businesses need to talk to their customers in the way that their customers want to talk to them, whether it’s SMS, Messenger or something else,” he said.

Analysts are betting that’s good news for Facebook. They estimate Messenger and Facebook’s other messaging app WhatsApp could eventually generate billions in additional annual revenue. Messenger’s growing importance to Facebook was reflected in its top billing at f8 for the second straight year.

Follow USA TODAY senior technology writer Jessica Guynn @jguynn 

Zuckerberg’s Facebook Messenger launches ‘chat bots’ platform – USA TODAY

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