Something is always being declared the "next big thing". The phrase, long used to refer to experts predicting trends before they reach fever pitch, finds itself attached to a new crop of doe-eyed tech watchers each year, it would seem. The newest "next big thing" to hit the streets, it would seem, is a somewhat old technology. The humble chat bot, based on artificial intelligence, finds its roots as far back as the 1960s. In more modern times, the name SmarterChild may inspire some nostalgia while modern bots seem to have split themselves into a trichotomy, if you will. There are bots that mimic apps, like what Kik recently introduced, more traditional chat bots like Microsoft's spectacular portrait of humanity, TAY, and the omni-bots, an evolution of digital assistants.
While the first and second bot groups are fairly important to the changing tech landscape, it's the third type that stands to make some real impact, should it take off. Utilizing massive amounts of knowledge, artificial intelligence and the ability to learn, these bots can be shaped into anything from extremely humanlike chatterboxes to natural and easy to use resources that allow a user to request something the way they would ask a spouse or friend, then actually receive their request by way of the bot either deciphering their "humanese", so to speak, or filling in the gaps. An example of one such bot can actually be seen in the picture above. What you see hanging over the text of this article is an Amazon Echo. Otherwise, a somewhat unremarkable portable speaker and IoT hub, the Echo is home to Amazon's Alexa AI bot.
Alexa is Amazon's own take on the likes of Siri and Google Now, made to not only cater to your every whim but to always be listening for those whims, learning your mannerisms and figuring out exactly what you may want, sometimes before you want it. That lofty goal may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but Alexa is bridging the gap with surprising speed. Already, it's capable of doing things like responding to "Get me a ride" with a ping to a nearby Uber driver, or responding to "I need some laundry soap", with something like "Tide, Downy or other brand?", then ordering it through the fastest, cheapest available channel, normally via Amazon's own speedy services. For an added kick, Alexa can integrate with platforms like Tasker and IFTTT to allow a user to define custom actions and trigger words and phrases for them. All in all, when configured just right, this could lead to a situation only a little bit removed from the numerous cartoons from back in the day that depicted a voice-driven, all-knowing "house of tomorrow".
With a setup like this, integration requires a framework related to the service at hand. If Amazon were to simply use other services' API calls and features to link to them without any use of official channels, it would likely end up a licensing and implementation nightmare. In the strictest sense of the word, Alexa then must have apps. With a voice-controlled, instruction-driven OS, though, where does the OS end and the app begin? It can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to tell where that line is, and that might not be a bad thing. In essence, that is the height of intuitive user interface design. To each their own still heavily applies, of course; some cling to their precious smartphones for dear life while others may welcome our new chatbot overlords with open arms. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has apparently fallen into the latter group, saying that bots of this type will overcome apps to become the de facto standard for user to machine interaction in the near future. This move would, if it happens, empower many users who are challenged with traditional gadgets. Imagine, if you will, a device not unlike a Moto Hint that housed an AI that was always listening for your command. You could order a cab, order some food, check movie times or call your babysitter while out with nothing but a few words. Not only is this more intuitive for the average person, it's not hard to imagine this making the type of experience smartphones are known for much more accessible to those who may be blind, paralyzed or otherwise unable to interact normally with tech.
The ride isn't all butterflies and roses, however; there are considerations that should be taken and caveats to weigh and scrutinize. For starters, as mentioned above, part of the intuitiveness of such a bot is its ability to fill in the gaps in regards to your requests. In some cases, this could end up spelling an absolutely massive invasion of privacy. Even without privacy concerns on board, the issue of consumer care over profits may arise; Let's say, for example, you ask Alexa for something as simple as a pizza. Perhaps you're a Domino's lover. If you never told Alexa that, it may ask. Just as easily, though, Amazon could make a quick affiliate buck by having Alexa order Pizza Hut unless you specify otherwise. Given those implications, the bigger picture begins to fall into place, along with how companies may plan to keep such a structure profitable in the long term. Whether that bigger picture is a technological utopia or the scariest thought this side of a certain sci-fi flick that popularized slow-motion fight scenes is purely subjective. For the tech to truly take hold and become ubiquitous, bot creators must strike just the right balance to satisfy both camps enough to have them stick around, even if they don't find the technology perfect, and at this point, only time can possibly tell if that's even possible, let alone if anybody will figure it out.