Rise of Chatbots: a new tech ecosystem for India Inc

This article has been authored by Beerud Sheth, founder and CEO of Gupshup – the bot platform that enables users to build advanced bots

In the tech industry, 2016 can easily be described as the Year of the chatbot. It has gone from being a virtually unknown concept at the beginning of the year to the most talked about topic in tech. While there is indeed some hype, the sustained interest from every major tech company as well as many startups, investors, media publications and consumers is simply undeniable. As the year ends, it’s a good time to take stock of where we are and peek into the future that 2017 will likely bring upon us.
 
Let’s review what happened over the last year. As messaging apps became dominant and ubiquitous, this year they started expanding from a communication platform to a computing platform. Facebook Messenger, Skype, Slack, Telegram and others exposed APIs that now enabled software programs to send and receive chat messages. These software programs, called chat bots, can now chat just like people do. Unlike websites and apps with rigid interfaces, chat bots have a conversational interface making it a more natural experience for humans. The conversational interface is also a great fit for Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools, which are themselves seeing a parallel growth spurt due to new GPU-based chip technologies which have dramatically increased computing capabilities. Chat bots on the front-end and AI on the back-end together have emerged as the major paradigm shift that is disrupting the tech industry.
 
Every major tech company has signaled significant investment in this new technology. Facebook launched APIs for Messenger and, hopefully soon, Whatsapp. Microsoft announced “bots are the new apps” and are weaving it into Azure and other tools. Google and Salesforce announced “AI everywhere” strategies. Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri have announced new plans to extend capabilities. Cisco, Oracle, SAP and Samsung are moving in this direction too. Startups and developers have gotten into the act, too, often moving faster than larger companies. Over 35,000 chat bots have been launched on Facebook Messenger in just the last few months. Startups are getting funded as purely bot companies i.e. no app or websites! Other companies are building tools and platforms for the rapidly growing chat bot ecosystem.
 
Conversational interfaces, often combined with intelligent backends, will transform the very way we use computers and software. Every service delivered today via website or app, will be delivered tomorrow via bots. Every brand, business and startup will need to build bots. For brands, literally every customer touch-point will now be enabled via bots. These bots will be intelligent and personalized, understanding clearly when the user says, for example, “get me the usual”. For example, banking bots will enable consumers to check balance, transfer money, pay bills and more. Broking bots will enable consumers to find investment options, make investments and track balances. E-commerce bots will get customers the best deals and offers. News bots will deliver personalized news information while gaming bots will entertain. Restaurant bots will enable you to order, pay and eat without waiting in line. Customer support bots will provide instant responses dramatically increasing customer satisfaction. Enterprise bots will enable employees to check leave balance, file expenses, check inventory balance and approve transactions.
 
Bots will enable interaction with the “internet of things” as well. Just as users can speak today with Amazon Alexa embedded in a stereo speaker, they will be able to talk to bots embedded in cars, homes, appliances, vending machines, factory equipment etc. The interaction may be through voice or text, but it will certainly be conversational.
 
India is well poised to take advantage of this trend. India now has a massive installed base of smartphones with heavy use of messaging apps. Also, India has a rich tech ecosystem of startups and developers that are highly aware of global advances in technology. Even user adoption of bots is going to happen rapidly. Especially because bots are an invisible technology that requires no change in user behavior – will the user know or care whether the response came from a human or a bot so long as the transaction is successful? My company, Gupshup, is already working with hundreds of global banks, brokers, retailers, e-tailers, restaurants etc. to build and launch advanced bots. 
 
The bot phenomenon will cause broad disruption in many areas of the economy. Widespread automation will disrupt the BPO industry – will we still need all that many human agents? Enterprise middle-managers, whose primary job is to make sure things get done, may see their roles taken over by bots. On the other hand, there will be a massive need for bot developers and designers that build delightful experiences. End-users will be able to delegate many of their activities to their bot agents that will be personalized to their requirements. Companies and countries that adapt to this trend will gain market share and operational efficiencies while others will fall behind.
 
Even as dramatic events in politics, sports or entertainment grabbed the headlines this year, the greatest impact to our personal and professional lives over the next decade will prove to be the birth of the bot in 2016.


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