Bot Basics

What Do Bots Do?

The ability of bots to accomplish different types of tasks is evolving and increasing rapidly. You can get a bot to manage projects in your Slack channel, get the weather, discover new music or tell you a dad joke. Here are a few things that bots can do.

April 10, 2018

As explored in previous chapters, chatbots, or bots, started as a tool for talk therapy. Today, they’re making sales on e-commerce sites, managing calendars for entire companies, interpreting sports statistics, and generating pieces of randomized art, among many other tasks. Bots have grown up a lot. They serve so many purposes these days that it’s hard to talk about them as a single group anymore.

Following is a breakdown of current bot technology and what bots can do, along with some of the best examples of each. And these are just the beginning!

Functions of Bots

The ability of bots to accomplish different types of tasks is evolving and increasing rapidly. You can get a bot to manage projects in your Slack channel, get the weather, discover new music or tell you a dad joke. Here are a few things that bots can do.

Task bots

As their moniker suggests, task (or utility) bots automate processes and streamline user experiences. This type of bot can perform a variety of functions—from extremely simple to very complex. Task bots typically take information or functionality from somewhere else, process it in some way, and then route it back to the user.

Slack, the communication app, incorporates the best of utility bot technology. Slack’s Slackbot automates problem-solving solutions—from answering questions about the platform itself to adding customizable queries. You can integrate it with your calendar, document drive, email, social networks, and more.

You can build Slack utility bots yourself, but there are hundreds of integrations already available that can expand existing functionality with minimal effort. You can organize an internal wiki for your team with Tettra, poll your coworkers with Simple Poll, or connect Slack to your Trello board for task management. To see the full roster, visit the Slack App Directory.

Other examples of task bots include:

  • China’s ubiquitous WeChat is a messaging platform that integrates hundreds— maybe thousands—of utility bots. WeChat users can pay water bills, book doctors’ appointments, order food, and send money to friends, along with many other tasks.

  • Watching what you eat? Feeling tired? The Facebook Messenger app Forksy is a robot nutritionist that can help you boost your energy by changing your diet. You send her images of what you eat. Forksy sends them to an image-processing system that identifies the foods, and then she helps you log, track, and interpret those eating patterns.

  • If you find yourself tracking expenses often, download ExpenseBot. This task bot integrates with credit card companies, calendars, and email to create, send, and approve expense reports.

  • Gumbot creates music playlists for its users. It takes information from the user’s Apple Music account and creates a list of songs.

Informational bots

Some bots, like task bots, operate on the simple principle of answering user questions. They perform a service by connecting the user with the functionality of another platform. Informational bots, on the other hand, connect users to data. They might draw that information from another platform’s API or from their own internal database, but they surface an answer.

Informational bots provide basic information on a seemingly endless list of topics. Common applications include answering questions about the weather, sports, or news. Depending on the source of information, these bots can also answer elaborate queries, like giving the answers that users need to plan entire vacations.

Examples of informational bots include:

  • theScore is a bot built to provide users with real-time score updates for NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, most major soccer leagues, and other sporting events.

  • Poncho sends users personalized weather information every morning. It can even give alerts for high-pollen or high-humidity days, transit delays, and more.

  • Kayak for Facebook Messenger helps to streamline a user’s travel agenda. It helps search thousands of flights, hotels, car rentals, and activities by pulling data from Kayak’s vast database of travel options.

Conversation bots

Created specifically to talk with humans, conversation bots typically involve heavy natural language processing (NLP) capabilities and present some of the most difficult and intriguing challenges for bot developers. They take unstructured language, turn it into structured data, and then translate that data into a response.

Conversation bots are revolutionizing customer service, and you might have interacted with one on a company website. They help customers in browsers or messenger apps to find the information or assistance that they need.

There are also conversation bots that don’t have “day jobs,” so to speak. They exist to interact with users through natural language conversation and are often created by private research teams or academics to study and understand natural language and push limitations. They can also be created purely for fun, amusement, or emotional connection.

Popular conversation bots include:

  • Woebot provides therapeutic conversations with users via Facebook Messenger or with anonymous users via an iPhone or iPad. The bot is so sophisticated that it can help treat symptoms of depression through conversation.

  • Mitsuku has won the Loebner Prize, the foremost award for humanlike bots, for three years running. If you want to talk to a bot for hours on end and have a conversation that pushes the limits of the Turing Test, Mitsuku is the bot for you.

  • Microsoft’s XiaoIce is an extremely advanced conversation bot, with more than 20 million users. It was developed by mining the Chinese national intranet for language samples to produce an intelligent conversation companion. It’s currently only available in Chinese, but the team is developing an English version.

Art and entertainment bots

Not all bots need to provide users with services or information. Some are just around to make us think, laugh, or even dive deeper into the sometimes-strange world of technology. Art and entertainment bots may draw on the functionality of informational, conversation, or utility bots, but their purpose is to entertain.

Here are a few examples of art and entertainment bots:

  • Dad Joke Bot provides users with humorous musings. The bot asks questions to joke about, like a stand-up comedian. The user chooses whether to respond.

  • For users interested in playing a game with a bot, MojiHunt offers a fun challenge. Typing emojis results in a Tetris-like puzzle game.

  • Looking for something that will help you get through a long day? Try Slack’s Connect 4 Bot. If the name sounds familiar, it should! It’s the same game that you remember from your childhood, except that it’s the skeuomorphic version within Slack.

  • Project Murphy is a “robot with imagination.” It takes “what if” questions and responds with pictures that depict whatever you’re imagining. Its ideal use case seems to be face-swapping celebrities, but it offers plenty of wild ideas of how the imagined world might look.

Voice bots

Voice bots are designed to actually talk to humans—without an interface. They’re complicated pieces of engineering that blend elements of utility, informational, conversation, and entertainment bots. Siri, Alexa, Amazon Echo, and Google Assistant are popular examples.

They are useful everywhere. With one simple voice command, you can ask Alexa to add something to your grocery list, schedule a meeting with a colleague, instantly order dog food, or tell you a joke. Voice bots allow two-way, contextually aware conversations to happen naturally. Eventually, we’ll be asking for help from voice bots on pretty much any device.

Voice bots draw upon the technologies of all the other bots to simulate the next stage of artificial intelligence: a human conversation. Soon, we might be carrying on whole conversations with our voice bots or telling them about our days when we get home, as we would a roommate. And, like a roommate, they might not always tell us what we want to hear—but at least they won’t eat our leftovers.