The bot backlash begins

The bot backlash begins
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Some people are starting to question the unrelenting hype around bots in chat programs and platforms


Bots are hot, hot, hot.
Until they’re not, not, not.

Unless you’ve been cut off from all media in a vain attempt to avoid the 2016 presidential campaign, you’re probably aware that bots are bright, new shiny things in the tech world.

The idea behind “bot-mania” is that a conversation is often the best, most natural way for a program or service to communicate with a human. Instead of websites or apps, you can type or talk to the bot and get the answers or services you’re looking for.

Sounds great right? And it is. Or at least it’s a great idea. Most of the time, anyway.

Great bot expectations?

It turns out, as so often happens in the world of technology, the hype may be getting ahead of the reality, creating expectations that cannot currently, or perhaps ever, be fully met.

Earlier this month, I noted that Siri, Google Now and Cortana struggle to deal with important health and safety issues. But that’s only the beginning.

For instance, after Facebook’s big announcements at its recent F8 Developer Conference, initial testers found much lacking in the first set of bots available on Facebook to be “more frustrating than helpful” and “the slowest way to use the internet.” Heck, even finding them is a “huge pain in the ass,” according to Gizmodo. Even Facebook has acknowledged issues with the rollout.

Bad bot behavior

Balky performance is nothing compared to the story of Tay, Microsoft’s chatbot that users quickly corrupted into a racist jerk. April Glaser at Wired says, “Bots need to learn some manners,” and it’s up to us to teach them. As Tay proved, though, teaching bots to play nice may not be so easy.

It gets worse and more complicated. Over at Salon, Jennifer Seaman Cook worries that female bots too often reinforce unfortunate stereotypes.

Blogger Dan Grover, meanwhile, who back in 2014 saw “Chat as Universal UI,” last week wrote that “Bots won't replace apps. Better apps will replace apps.” For Grover, the rise of bots is mostly an “adept exploitation of Silicon Valley phone OS makers’ growing failure to fully serve users’ needs, particularly in other parts of the world.”

On a more prosaic level, others worry that messaging bots are a looming security threat.

Can bots have growing pains? 

I don’t dispute any of those criticisms, and I don’t believe we’re living in a post-app world. But I also believe apps have a role and can do some (many?) things better than apps or websites. Over time, developers and designers (and users) will figure out what those things are, and bots will take their place as one of many useful interfaces.

Until then, watch out for more pendulum swings between bot hype and bot backlash. Like it or not, that’s pretty much standard procedure for emerging technologies in today’s media and social landscape.  

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