Latest 25 Apr 2019 | Customer Service | 6 min read

Automation Evolution – The Brief History of Chatbots

Working seamlessly together, bots & human agents can turn CX into your competitive differentiator.

If you haven’t deployed a customer support chatbot yet, chances are you’re considering it. From customer support to touchless interfaces, they’re becoming a fixture of everyday life.

It might surprise you to know that bots have been in development since the 1950s. As we enter an era of chatbot-fueled communication, let’s take a quick, lighthearted look back at where these bots came from and where they’ll soon take us.

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The beginning: Text-only chatbots started out practical but got weird fast

  • 1950 - The Turing Test, created by British scientist Alan Turing, set a standard for measuring artificial intelligence (AI); If a machine could convince a human that it was another human via a text conversation, it would be considered intelligent. The Turing Test is still in wide use today.

  • 1966 - Eliza, developed at the AI lab at MIT, was the first bot built with a human name and supposed personality. She was powered by a room-sized computer and intended to simulate conversations with a therapist. She lacked believability, however, and couldn’t really understand the context of conversations.

  • 1972 - The psychiatrist Kenneth Colby created a bot called Parry to see if he could make a bot simulating the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia that also passed the Turing Test. Parry was connected to Eliza for a chat to try to work out his “psychosomatic” problems, but the two didn’t make much progress and Parry never passed his test.

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Early AI: As code grew more sophisticated and the internet was born, creators toyed with entertainment and novelty

  • 1988 - Jabberwacky, released in 1997, was invented by developer Rollo Carpenter to entertain users by answering rudimentary questions. You can still talk to it today.

  • 1992 - Dr. Sbaisto, another bot psychologist, was released by a group called Creative Lab after Eliza failed to give them proper psychiatric counsel. (Kidding.) Human psychologists shouldn’t worry about their jobs going to bots anytime soon, though – to this day, bots still haven’t made much progress in treating human patients.

  • 1995 - Internet chatterbot A.L.I.C.E was able to stay on topic and hold a longer back-and-forth conversation with users than its predecessors, but still didn’t pass the Turing Test.

  • 2001 - SmarterChild was a fun, personalized online text bot integrated into AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Its function was mostly for entertainment, though it could answer some internet-searchable questions. Most of the earliest bots, including SmarterChild, didn’t take themselves seriously, their creators seemingly self-aware of their novelty factor.

A good bot makes for great customer experiences. They reduce agents’ workload, improve response times, and eliminate dreaded, scratchy, on-hold music. If you design your chatbots with these guidelines in mind, they have the potential to transform your support.

The modern era: Developers created more purposeful chatbots and did away with the surreal humor of early bots

  • 2006 - IBM rolled out Watson, which won the TV game show Jeopardy! in 2011.

  • 2010 - Apple graced our iPhones with Siri, the intelligent, sassy personal assistant that set a practical standard for all future AI and bots.

  • 2012 - Google Now, followed by the 2015 Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana, are all voice-activated personal assistants that followed Siri’s lead and function and are accessed via smart speakers.

  • 2016 - Sophia became the world’s first bot citizen. She’s a little different from the bots that came before her because she lives in a robot form rather than virtually. She has a sense of humor and opinions, and regularly speaks at conferences and events.

  • 2016 - Facebook launched integrated chatbots for Messenger. This was huge for customer support teams and required bots and AI to be quick, accurate, and effective. Bots shifted from purely social to be promotional, helpful, and necessary in the modern retail support landscape, letting customers place orders, book flights, and give feedback along with seeking support.

The future of bots & AI: What’s next?

  • Tay 2016 - Microsoft’s bot catastrophe foreshadowed what might happen if AI becomes too intelligent too fast. The bot posted a series of paranoid and racist tweets after absorbing Twitter jargon, and had to be shut down the same day it was released. It serves as a cautionary tale about what can happen when bots aren’t given moral direction.

  • In the very near future, chatbots will be able function as teachers and assist with information. The Association for Talent Development predicts that bots will to be able to analyze information and provide intelligent insight and opinions, rather than just parrot facts they find online. Don’t be surprised if we see bot school tutors assisting with homework soon.

  • Some of the main challenges bots must overcome are speech pattern confusion with diction and inflection. Voice-activated bots sometimes have trouble understanding human commands and certainly have trouble processing humor or sarcasm. These fixes will be a priority in the coming years.

  • Chatbots will start to offer emotional support and form “relationships” with their human users. Replika, a bot developer, promises a chatbot best friend, and programs like Invisible Boyfriend aim to provide users with a chatbot significant other. According to Microsoft Bing’s Christi Olson, “The chatbots of the future don’t just respond to questions. They talk. They think. They draw insights from knowledge graphs. They forge emotional relationships with customers.

" Conversocial’s customers have seen the volume of conversations taking place over messaging channels grow by more than 900 percent in the past few years. For brands to continue delivering a great experience to consumers at that kind of scale, automation is required. "
Joshua March - CEO & Founder, Conversocial

Whether you form a real relationship with a chatbot or just use one to hear the daily weather report, bots are on a mission to make plenty of aspects of human life more convenient. Of course, there are plenty of ethical measures to have in place when creating a bot (ahem, Tay). Many brands and apps are realizing the overarching benefits of bots—quicker, more efficient service and reduced cost – and are finding it’s well worth the investment.

Want to find out more about how consumer feel about bot-assisted interactions? Check out  The State of Digital Customer Experience 2019 Report now! 



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