The Future of Communication: Socialbots and Taskbots

RobotThis is the first post in a new series about technologies that are shaping the future of communication. We’ve been following a dozen-plus technologies that cover an interesting array of possibilities, from enhancing existing communication modes to replacing at least one of the humans in a conversation to assisting people who have a variety of motor, vision, and cognitive impairments.

They are all across the adoption curve, from technologies that are already approaching mainstream usage (such as bots and gamification) to a few that are closer to the sci-fi end of things (such as holograms and telepathic communication). All of them present interesting discussion topics for business communication, because they get to the heart of matter, which is trying to exchange information and meaning in the most effective and efficient ways possible. To offer students a peek into the future, we've started covering these innovations in our business communication texts, beginning with the 14th Edition of Business Communication Today, which launched this past January.

The bots are back. Automated bots (short for robots) made a small wave a decade or so ago when “chatbots” began appearing on websites to help companies handle online conversations with customers. Ikea’s Anna, perhaps the first chatbot to receive widespread attention, was built to answer routine questions from customers looking for advice regarding the chain’s furniture products. Other chatbots followed, smartphones gained virtual assistants, and nonchatty bots continued to do automated work of various kinds on the Internet, but bots didn’t really catch on as a mainstream technology.

With advances in artificial intelligence and the growing use of messaging systems for both consumer and business communication, however, a new wave of bots as personal assistants has taken off. Major categories of bot technology include taskbots that perform routine chores within digital systems and socialbots that mimic human conversation.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella believes bots will transform technology usage the same way mobile apps have. As bot capability is added to more devices and systems—particularly workgroup messaging systems, where a growing number of employees now conduct increasing amounts of their routine business communication—bots are finally entering the mainstream. If you’ve ever carried on a Facebook Messenger conversation with the band Maroon 5, for example, you were talking with a bot.

Bots are popular on the widely used Slack workgroup messaging system, where they can do everything from ordering lunch to monitoring the mood of team conversations. The Howdy bot, for example, can perform such tasks as simultaneously interviewing all the members of a project team to give the team leader a real-time status update. On Slack, bots are treated just like human team members in many ways—they can send and receive messages, be assigned tasks, and be invited to join specific groups and communication channels. As bots get better at understanding language, they’ll be able to contribute to conversations, such as finding background information that could help solve a problem colleagues are discussing, without anyone asking for their help.

We like to get hands-on experience with as many communication technologies as possible, so we've been developing our own socialbot. It's up and running on our Facebook page, so please drop by for a chat. 

How far this bot revolution will go is anybody’s guess, but the appeal of this new generation of digital genies is undeniable. They are more connected to the systems that people use every day on the job, and they can reduce the need to navigate yet another website or learn yet another app in order to get something done. Instead, you just message your bot and let it figure out how to make things happen.

Class activity idea: Ask students to research the current state of bot communication to identify one way in which the technology is changing or has the potential to change business communication practices. Do they agree with the predictions the experts make? Why or why not?

Photo credit: peyri via / CC BY-ND