From Anna to Alexa

My memories of the patient Swedish girl Anna are what prompted me to dive into the world of chatbots. Are they still as wonderfully entertaining as Anna was six years ago? And can they meanwhile even help me?

Anna from IKEA

A while ago, I was strolling through my Facebook profile and found a posting from back in 2011: the recorded conversation between Anna and myself. A wave of emotion washed over me: Anna! I had loads of fun with the chatbot from IKEA when I asked for her advice about my rolling cabinet. While I never did receive a reasonable answer, her patience with me was praiseworthy. Naturally, I right away surfed over to IKEA to see how Anna was doing and if she still remembered me. But she was gone.

Show me those bots!

What happened to Anna? We often read about chatbots with artificial intelligence (AI). These automated dialog systems based on natural language processing promise great acumen and salutary, inexpensive solutions when it comes to customer dialog. “Bots are the new apps,” prophesied Satya Nadella , Microsoft CEO. But where are these AI beasts now? I want to give them a try! When searching for chatbots, you cannot help coming across Poncho – the Facebook bot, who knows everything there is to know about the weather. With Chad, Opel has discovered the potential of setting up reservations for test drives quickly and smoothly. The Lufthansa message bot is called Mildred. They all sound promising!

Buttons instead of chatting

Chad: Opel's bot for test drives

The first thing I had to learn: for many bots, “to chat” does not mean to “talk to one another” or to “shoot the breeze”, but to “stick to my prepared questions, answers or conversation topics”. Many bots do not even make the effort to try to understand the entries made by Internet strollers, but solely accept clicks on buttons. I wanted to set up a test drive with an Opel Ampera with Chad. Those electric cars are such a trend currently. Not a chance! The test drive offer only includes five models, which are shown with nice pictures. So I chose the model called Adam. I type “adam”, “Adam” and “ADAM” in the entry field and am disappointed. After making the three entries, Chad asks me if I need help. Me? Seriously? I can only proceed after I click on the picture of the Adam.

Poncho worked a bit better. He at least tried to interpret. When I asked whether I need an umbrella today in Strengelbach, he advised me that I need not worry and can leave it home today. Then I asked about Neustadt. The weather is great here as well. But I am a bit irritated: which Neustadt did Poncho give me the weather data for? There are around 20 places with this name.

Poncho is the Facebook-bot that knows everything about the weather in Neustadt. But which Neustadt does he mean?
The rather impersonal bot from klickmal.at

After I set up my test drive with the Adam at Opel, I searched for the appropriate insurance at klickmal.at. I was able to get a very personal insurance offer from this rather impersonal bot. However, the bot did not really permit any real communication: it accurately recognizes the answers “yes” or “no” to the question of whether I am ready. It even interprets my “sure” reply correctly. I was amazed. But that is as far as it went with surprises. To the questions regarding the brand and model I answered “an Opel” and “the Adam”. These entries were checked – but only at the end. The bot then let me know that I had to start from the beginning because an error occurred during the calculation.

Disappointment and a bit of hope

All in all, I am disappointed with the chatbots I tried out. I am, of course, happy when my “sure” is correctly interpreted. But is that the highly praised intelligence? Many bots do not seem to be anything more than a form. Word recognition is hardly noticeable and I prefer not say anything about the interpretation of an entire sentence. I really miss the AI in the AI systems. Nevertheless, I do see potential for chatbots. Most of the top-10 questions for a popular customer service can probably be answered by a bot. Furthermore, they have the advantage of mainly appearing where the modern Homo sapiens hang around: in the messenger. There, the prepared click answers have their justification – typing messages on a smart phone is still a hassle.

Uwe Funk is software engineer at BSI and machine learning enthusiast

However, I think that the future belongs to the Alexas, Cortanas and Siris and that companies should supply their answers and offers to these assistants. The advantage: I need not first open a messenger or an app or even download something, I simply need to mumble into the microphone and ask “Alexa! Will it rain tomorrow?” That is also how I want to book a test drive with an Adam or my flight to Hamburg. Alexa can also suggest the right date for me right away – after all, she is well familiar with my schedule. And she can see in my e-mails that I need insurance for my Adam. These remain just a vision for now, but perhaps with a bit of luck, Alexa, Siri and Cortana will soon become highly praised AI miracles. Perhaps they will be less entertaining than Anna was back in the day but they will provide helpful answers.

I look forward to the future.

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Uwe Funk