What are Bots and Conversational UIs?

Written by on Jun 22 2016

A few weeks ago, your seventy-one year old aunt Betty friended the Great Recipes account on Facebook. Yesterday morning, she texted Great Recipes on Facebook Messenger saying:

“Whole family’s coming over tonight. I’d like to bake an apple crisp for the kiddies. What recipe would you recommend?”

In a few seconds the answer came back:

“I’ve got a couple of good ones. Are you going for the classic or would you like something with a twist?”

A few more messages back and forth and aunt Betty found her recipe. A few more hours went by and there you were, stuffing your face and asking for that third serving (I’m looking at you Steven and Allan). You should really start watching your weight, you know?

Whether or not she knew it, she was not chatting with a human. It was a bot — short for chatbot or chat robot. Bots are automated services that can read incoming text messages, use fancy AI tech to understand what humans are saying to them and reply — ideally with something that makes sense and is written in a friendly tone.

This process of chatting with an automated service is what people refer to as Conversational UI. Rather than tapping buttons in an app, browsing web pages, or talking with another human over the phone, your interaction happens over text messages in apps like Facebook Messenger — or even directly over SMS.

That is the gist of what most bots do: they receive messages from you, perform a task on your behalf, and respond just like a human would — think of them as personal assistants for the 21st century.

There is one catch though — sometimes bots are actually people pretending to be bots. Crazy, right? So if your aunt would choose to use Great Recipes’ grocery delivery service, an operator working for the company might jump in on the conversation to get her shipping address on file.

In fact, for the time being, the more ambitious bots like Facebook M are actually 100% human-powered because the AI technology behind the service isn’t up to snuff given the loads of things M can do for you.

But despite any shortcomings in today’s technology, bots are receiving an enormous amount of buzz. Please ask questions in the comments and look forward to our upcoming posts where we dive deeper into bots.


Hi I'm Eugen,

I wrote the article you're reading... I spend my days in the eclectic city of Bucharest, Romania. I enjoy talking things through, and solving hard problems with a gentle touch. I love films, friendships, and tennis and I have an insatiable sweet tooth.

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