Friday, July 14, 2017

Human chatbots?

Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA, developed in 1966, was a language processing program intended to simulate human conversation via pattern matching. The ELIZA program helped build the foundation for the modern day chatbot, and as chatbots continue to evolve people have attempted to leverage its functionality for a wide range of uses including messaging and marketing.

Within marketing the chatbot has become ubiquitous on retail sites, in many use cases acting as a customer service representative by answering product related questions for potential customers. Yet, the major issue with the chatbots have been their limitations and inability to truly connect with users (i.e. be perceived as an actual human). To combat the chatbot limitations, the site The Infatuation removed the Artificial Intelligence (AI) from the equation and replaced it with the next best thing, a human. Since the Spring of 2015 the infatuation has been utilizing a chat service called Text Rex. “With a dinosaur as a mascot, the free texting recommendation service is more than just a chatbot. It’s run by well-trained and well-meaning humans between the general hours of 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. The ‘Rexers’ receive requests from registered Text Rex users and use The Infatuation’s categorized database to find the perfect restaurant for the situation.” Per Chris Stang, CEO of The Infatuation, it impossible to “give people value in a fun, trustworthy way” through use of an AI based system.

The Infatuation’s strategy in this use case makes sense, as the sophistication of AI based chat services lack the ability to truly connect with customers. Yet, the strategy becomes tenuous once you need to scale the solution. Currently the Text Rex service is only offered in New York City, with plans to roll out in Los Angeles, and to adequately expand the service more employees need to be hired. Once other markets are added to this plan, costs for the Text Rex service will rise, and realizing economies of scale would likely require consolidation of Text Rex employees into regional teams. With this type of model, the service could lose its local uniqueness and possibly drive customers away. As CRO Andrew Steinthal stated, “People just want that narrative feeling…As the internet gets murkier and social networks get bigger, you can lose your voice.”

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