Bots as Celebrities

Messenger-based services, bots, agents, AI. It looks like app fatigue has led us to look to these for the next green field, something new for VCs to plough their money into, something that feels different.

From time to time technology comes full circle and here we are again using something like IRC, in the UX slam dunk that is Slack, and setting loose upon it an army of bots… again, like we do/did with IRC. Of course both of these things are significantly evolved from their forebears; the semi-public messaging platform (albeit, now less suited for massive audiences) but also the bots, who once were relegated to performing simple tasks like running file shares or hosting quizzes for a handful of geeks, are now powered by significant “AI” resource and connected to millions of people and myriad services from Uber to Dominos.

 

But what for and why now?

AI, in the sci-fi movie sense, feels like it’s been “a decade away” for as long as I can remember. In reality IA (as the case may actually be) is already in use and has been with us for some time, just in a very limited and low profile capacity, with the exception of IBM’s Watson kicking butt on Jeopardy perhaps. What we are now seeing is that potential being unleashed in consumer-space and the results are going to change HCI yet again.

Who are the trailblazers? IBM’s Watson we’ve mentioned, Facebook Messenger’s “M”, Amazon’s Alexa, the agent that lives in the Quartz news app and of course the numerous bots that will be hatched through Slack Bot Startups to name a few. Most of these interact through chat, be it text or voice, and when the AI isn’t feeling chatty it’s beating us at 2,500 year old board games. I remember configuring an AliceBot maybe 10 years ago and whilst at the time it felt like a scene from Bladerunner it was positively naive when compared to with complex behaviour on display today.

What caught my eye most recently however was Microsoft’s entry to the bot scene with Tay. Designed “to be entertainment”, Tay is a chat bot that pretends to be a 19-year old American girl, complete with acronym-heavy “text speak”, the ability to play games and a strong opinion on some pretty heavy thought experiments. Tay will be available through Kik, GroupMe, and Twitter initially and over time will learn new skills and presumably perform better at the Turing test.

Celebrity?

On the surface Tay seems like a bit of fun, a tech giant flexing its R&D muscle. But the ramifications could be profound. Tay got me thinking, how will these bots evolve, and how will we as a society perceive them?

Messaging bots + services: the ultimate brand advocate is a celebrity. If your brand can develop their own AI celebrities they can exact fine grained control over their message, and worry less about post-club drunken photos of their current “face” appearing in Heat magazine.

The bots we’ve grown accustomed to in the last few years are agents: Siri, Cortana, Amy, Alexa and erm… “OK Google” (the latter lacking the necessary persona to really grow on us), they’re fairly passive in their approach. They act out on our requests, very rarely instigating something. I think this is where a big shift is about to occur, we’ll see more impetus to create original content from the agents and ultimately they will begin to define their own goals.

It seems likely to me that agencies could in fact craft and tune personas powered by these underlying AI bot engines (AIaaS please?) to become nothing short of celebrities, with millions of followers across the (people) social networks and a genuine human connection, within certain groups at least.

Who might want this?

Well any media outlet for sure, if you want to disseminate a message you better have either a great story or a pretty face. Brands could engage with experts to craft their ultimate brand advocate, an entirely constructed celebrity. Infinitely scalable and international, the Celebribot might engage itself in real time media buying without the slightest of instructions, based on the agenda and campaign package currently being relayed to it. Hey if a mute Lara Croft can become a brand advocate for an energy drink, just think what could happen if she could talk, think, and plan for herself.

So this is where I think we are going with the new wave of bots. Can we look forward to manifestations of AI personalities hovering over us, dressed up drones, perhaps HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey or maybe if we’re lucky something or someone more like Holly from Red Dwarf. Maybe I’ve been watching a little too much Black Mirror but it certainly looks like our engagement with these entities is about to see a pace change.