Taylor Davidson · Bots, the new-new-old thing

Why are bots notable? Not because of what they are, but because of what they can do.
by Taylor Davidson · 14 Apr 2016

Bots are front and center of the web’s attention these days. Bot platforms, bot summer camps, Slack bots, and now, Facebook bots. Why do we care about bots? Because bots, as a conversational interface, is a way to provide services and information over messaging interfaces, something billions of people use multiple times a day. Because messaging could anchor a post-app Internet. Because text, a prominent method of sharing and communicating on messaging platforms, is something that machine learning algorithms can parse to build artificial intelligence powered services. Because the surprising interest in Amazon’s Alexa allows people to use bots by talking to your home. Because bots are simple, minimal and constrained (for now), and constrained environments capture the imagination and fun of what’s possible, particularly of developers who might be finding web and app development to be exhausting these days. Because bots are also a corporate gold rush, and I expect that people will soon be pitching to build bots for brands the same way we pitched brands to build apps. Because brands want to figure out a way to reach billions of people every day, and bots could be a new form of advertising, or perhaps adverservicing (is that a word? I hope not). Because engineers like new things. Because the idea of a robot that makes our lives easier and better is so appealing. And probably a billion other reasons and rationales and opinions you’re going to read about bots for the next twelve months.

Net/net, here’s my thought: we’ve seen this before. Every new thing that people use en mass is a new opportunity to recreate how we get things done. What we’re seeing now is what happens after billions of people use messaging apps for hours a day. A lot of what we are calling “bots” today are what we used to call something else: scripts or automated voice response trees or other methods of interacting with services passing data back and forth, a new name to an old solution. Most of the things we are calling bots today are a new spin, not a fundamental disruption. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about bots: new spins on old solutions can change businesses, careers, lives. Pay attention to what happens with bots not because they are bots, but because of how they hopefully enable us to solve problems in new ways; not because bots are important, but because what we do with them could be.