What are bots? And are they any good? | DMA

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What are bots? And are they any good?


You may have heard the term ‘bot’ been thrown around recently. Everyone is saying it - Facebook, Kik, The North Face and most recently Pizza Express. But what are bots? And are they any good?

What is a bot?

A bot is a robot, or a computer, that can engage in conversation, or give responses, to questions, sums or problems. They automate the kinds of tasks you’d normally do on your own, like making a dinner reservation or fetching and displaying information.

The word ‘bot’ has also been used as a synonym for AI (Artificial Intelligence) more recently.

So what’s the difference?

Normally a bot can enter into a conversation as a result of information it’s been fed. It knows what you’re likely to say and can answer from a number of different inputs that are stored in its memory. If you input information it’s not expecting, it gets confused and it has to respond with a standard message saying it doesn’t understand.

AI on the other hand, as the term says, is intelligent. It doesn't know what you’re about to say so it adapts and will answer no matter what the input. The algorithms can take information and output a strategy in a range of scenarios, as demonstrated by the recent AI programme beating humans at poker. AI has the capacity to undertake strategy and reasoning, so the potential for future applications is exciting.

What are they good for?

This is the main question to consider. Can bots be useful and relevant to us as individuals and consumers?

One well-known bot is The North Face Personal Intelligent Shopper. It aims to help you buy the perfect jacket for your upcoming trip.

It asks you where and when you’ll be using the jacket. Are you expecting rain? Do you need a hood? What colour would you like? It combines all these criteria to give you its recommended shortlist of jackets.

Sounds good, right? My only issue is that it actually takes longer to type your search terms than it would to tick the checkboxes on ASOS’s filter navigation. But it’s a neat thing for them to talk about.

Another much talked about bot is the robot lawyer, Do Not Pay. This bot has successfully challenged 160,000 parking tickets in London and New York.

The interface allows you to ‘chat’ with the system, working out whether an appeal is possible through a series of simple questions, such as ‘were there clearly visible parking signs?’ Then it takes you through the appeals process. And perhaps the most important bit: it’s free.

Why should I care?

The AI software tech that powers bots is improving all the time. AI is allowing computers to process language and converse with humans in a way we’ve not previously seen.

Facebook is getting into bots. Facebook has 900m Messenger users. The rest of the industry cares what Facebook is doing.

Messaging is a new opportunity for us to interact with brands in the same way and in the same private space you’d normally interact with a friend; on your phone. You might have already booked your table at Pizza Express through Messenger. You're in control.

All this new consumer tech has made us impatient, and bots are allowing us to order new trainers or complain about bad customer service in real time.

Got anything cool I can see?

Yes, actually. Let’s share our top three bots. There are some amazing implementations out there, some have been lifesaving and some are just cool.


As the name suggests, this Facebook Messenger-based bot allows you to report emergencies to the authorities through an interface on your phone. It can give you instructions on CPR or advise you what not to do, like move someone if they’re at risk of spinal injury. Then it will effortlessly connect you with 911 services, sending your location with it.


Cleo is an intelligent money manager. You hook it up to your bank account and you can ask her questions about your balance, like how much you’ve spent in the last week. Cleo also gives you handy insights into your spending and helps you save money. What’s not to like?

Google translation tool

The last on my top 3 is Google's “brain”. Google's AI translation tool has been up to some cool things.

Google told its AI to convert Japanese to English and Korean to English. What it was then able to do was use its own, made-up, language to translate between Japanese and Korean without using English as a bridge - something humans struggle to do.

Theoretically it can learn any language without any lessons and no one teaching it. So perhaps it’s ok I didn’t pay attention during GCSE French.

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