Facebook's new Messenger chatbots are barely two days old, and it's definitely showing. Right now, you can only interact with a few, and finding them is a huge pain in the arse. But after tracking some down and shooting the shit for a couple of days, I realised that using these robo-assistants is like trying to talk politics with a toddler. The problem is that most Messenger chatbots are dull conversationalists, so most of my chats sound unnatural, punctuated by moments of frustrating silence. I spent more time trying to guess what these little bots wanted to hear then actually talking to them. Mark Zuckerberg (and others like him) have promised elaborate conversations powered by sophisticated software. Instead, I found that my robo-chats were muffed by pre-determined answers.
Messenger's bots basically breakdown into two categories: ones that tell you information about things and ones that let you buy stuff. Take Hi Poncho for example, a hip, poncho-wearing cat bot that tells you the weather. Hi Poncho is interesting because it's the only chatbot among the early batch that even attempts to have a personality. He's a cutie, but if the goal is to replace your weather app with a chatbot, Poncho doesn't come close.
After a few setup menus -- giving Poncho my location, permission to hit me with daily weather and details of my horrible allergic afflictions -- Poncho told me the weather in Brooklyn. Then things started to fall apart.
There will be no weather this weekend, apparently. (Screenshots via Facebook Messenger)
Poncho is basically looking for one particular phrase, and that's "Do I need [insert item]?" As you can see in the screenshots above, referring to my past chats or previous answers doesn't work (you know, like a normal conversation). Every chat with Poncho exists in a vacuum and it forces you into a robotic back and forth, no matter how Poncho disguises it -- be it with funny GIFs or pop culture references.
Sam Mandel, the CEO of Poncho, says that less than 24 hours after the bot launched it has already run into unanticipated problems. But he agrees that Poncho has lots of language skills to learn. "We need to add more natural language processing, and that's what we're working on right now." Mendel told Gizmodo. "Because tolerance for a mediocre bot is much less than for a mediocre app."
That's not to say weather chatbots are doomed forever. Kik, which opened up a bot store just last week, launched with a great Weather Channel bot. Although Kik's bot doesn't have a cute cat persona, it offers great shortcuts for things like multi-day forecasts. It works, and it works well.
But even with all of its successes, compared to excellent weather apps like Dark Sky, it doesn't even come close to providing the same level of information. News bots like CNN and WSJ have the same problem, offering only a small plate of the entire news platter that's available in app.
So if delivering information is currently a mess, what about commerce? After all, that was Zuckerberg's big sell yesterday saying how much he hates calling businesses or customer service (which I doubt he ever does). I used 1-800 Flowers to figure out how commerce via texting could work.
"Am I done?" he cried to everyone...but also no one at all.
Turns out...it's...fine? But like news apps, when picking out the right floral arrangement it offers only a dozen choices where the 1-800-Flowers website shows off much more. When you're spending money on something, you should get exactly what you want, not a curated list of only six options.
Even after you go through the entire purchasing process, you're still left hanging on Messenger, wondering what's going on. I received a confirmation email five hours later, but by that time, I had already anxiously checked my online bank statements to see if the charge went through.
That is not the future of buying goods.
Last week when I asked developers about Facebook's chatbot endeavour, most of them said the same thing -- human language is a tricky beast. Ben Brown, a developer who builds bots on Slack and created his own platform for building bots, highlights the almost never-ending complexity of getting robots to converse. "If people think that they're talking to a person, they're more likely to be casual or natural," Brown says. "It makes the problem of receiving that information dramatically more difficult."
But most people will likely try out these rough-cut bots and decide they're not worth the hassle. Chatbots leave you with that same itch in the back of your mind that it's easier to get the weather or send flowers the old-fashioned way. They will get better, but it's going to take time. Right now, chatbots are a robotic wild west, and for the foreseeable future, you're better off sticking with civilised society.