Bot Development

What is a Chatbot?

Chatbots are now more commonplace than ever, but what exactly are they, and how do they work?

By John Van Duyn
March 25, 2019

Chatbots are everywhere. They’re integrated into social media, online retail sites, and even human resources departments. Although the term chatbot is well known and the presence of chatbots across the web has grown at a steady clip, the simple questions remain—what exactly is a chatbot, and how do chatbots work?

The basics

Essentially, a chatbot is an artificial intelligence (AI) unit that simulates human conversations. However, the chatbots that you may have interacted with in the heyday of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) have become much more advanced. Today’s chatbots not only realistically mimic human conversational patterns, but they also add to their knowledge as users interact with them, expanding their vocabulary and response base. The overall goal of chatbot development is to eventually build a bot so intelligent that a human would not be able to distinguish whether they are interacting with another human or a bot. Although we aren’t there yet, chatbot technology continues to grow and the future is promising.

The background

The first chatbot ever developed was ELIZA, and she was created in the early 1960s. ELIZA was a natural language processing (NLP) program, and her intended purpose was to show that fluid conversations between humans and bots—in which the human did not know that they were conversing with a bot—were actually not possible. The program used bits and pieces of the phrases entered by the user to respond to the user’s submitted phrase. This system was known as pattern matching, and it allowed ELIZA to rapidly learn the rules of the conversation and to adapt accordingly. For instance, if a user submitted the phrase, “My boyfriend says I’m depressed much of the time,” ELIZA would respond, “I am sorry to hear that you are depressed.” Although the responses were not overly detailed, they were in line with the general flow and direction of the interaction. In the decades since the creation of ELIZA, chatbot technology has grown at an exponential rate.

The function

Many times, chatbots exist as entities programmed into software to perform basic, automated duties, such as replying to customers on a retail site or engaging with users on social media messenger services. Users generally interact with them through voice or text interfaces, and the chatbot’s main function is usually to provide solutions to issues with a website or product. In the customer service realm, they offer certain advantages over human agents, especially considering the fact that they are available 24/7, use highly accurate keyword-based search functions for problem-solving, and are able to perform complex calculations in a matter of seconds.

The conversations

The main idea behind a chatbot is right there in the name—to chat. All chatbots are fundamentally conversation-driven, and therefore the importance of these bots (and their effectiveness) all comes down to their ability to respond to users in a way that is appropriate to the query or phrase that has been submitted. The day-to-day interactions that a chatbot has with users can be split into two categories, structured and unstructured conversations. The structured conversations usually follow a set series of steps based on simple logic—for instance, a customer asks a chatbot on a restaurant’s site for that day’s special, and the bot is able to provide this exact information. Unstructured conversations are a little bit more open-ended, and a chatbot’s accuracy in providing the correct information or responding sensibly to the user prompt is dependent on how the programmer constructed the bot’s conversational script.

The future

Chatbots are still not the be-all and end-all of online interaction, but the developmental strides that have been made over the past few years have significantly widened their capabilities. These bots have a variety of applications, and more likely than not, you’ve probably conversed with a few, especially in the realm of online retail and customer service. By doing so, you yourself are something of a bot developer, because the chatbots you interact with are using those interactions and conversations to become more intelligent. It is an exciting new frontier that we are constantly exploring and discussing here on discover.bot.