Facebook wants to replace 0800 numbers with bots

Mark Zuckerberg at F8. "I've never met anyone who likes calling businesses."

Mark Zuckerberg at F8. "I've never met anyone who likes calling businesses."

ANALYSIS: Love it or hate it, Messenger is Facebook's most important product.

Already, Facebook the social network feels like the clunky backend of the real product, an app where you actually talk to your friends, who barely post anything personal on the site itself any more.

It's not as splashy as Snapchat, but there's a reason it consistently beats those apps in engagement and app downloads. Sixty billion messages are sent a day on Messenger.

Facebook show off what "M" can already do.

Facebook show off what "M" can already do.

It's this generation's MSN, Gchat, or AIM - a default, kind of boring IM (instant messaging) system that literally everyone uses.

But it's not news that Facebook and its various limbs are popular. What matters is what they do with that popularity - as the majority of their revenue still comes from the news feed.

It's hard to monetise direct person-to-person interaction, as there's no real tolerance for ads there. Last week at the F8 conference, Mark Zuckerberg gave us some indication of what they're going to do instead.

Slackbot at work. (Okay, I cheated a little bit with the last one.)

Slackbot at work. (Okay, I cheated a little bit with the last one.)

Facebook are turning Messenger into a proper platform - a place where you do a lot more than just chat to friends.

They want it to replace phone calls, bill payments, even search engines - Facebook want to make Messenger the way you access and modify the entire modern world.

It may sound ambitious, but it isn't exactly new.

I'm based in Shanghai right now, and whenever I meet a new person they immediately ask to add me on WeChat, a messaging app that is completely dominant in China (Facebook is banned here, something Mark Zuckerberg is desperately trying to change).

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WeChat already does all the things Facebook messenger wants to do. You can buy pretty much anything you want through WeChat. You can pay your bills through it, or order a pizza, or repairs for your internet connection. You can even call the police.

Of course, none of these things are impossible to do with your smartphone now. The difference is the interface.

Instead of calling an 0800 number and waiting on hold for 10-20 minutes or trying to remember the password to a complicated website built in 2007, you just message someone - or something.

Yes, the only way this kind of thing can upscale is if the person on the other end of the chat is actually a "bot" - a pile of computer code that is smart enough to respond to you as if it was a person.

Facebook is opening up Messenger for others to develop their own bots within.

Think Siri, but actually good. Think Slackbot, the insanely useful personal assistant built in to Slack. Think ForbesBot, one of a bevy of new chatbots from media companies wanting to serve you a very personal diet of news.

At F8, Zuckerberg was effusive in his love for bots, and his hate for calling people on the phone.

"I've never met anyone who likes calling businesses," he said, whereas, "I think advances in AI (artificial intelligence) can help save peoples lives."

But don't assume that you'll always be chatting to a pile of code. Facebook have been working on a personal assistant called "M" in extremely private beta for a few years now.

The assistant can do almost anything for you - book flights, order flowers, your taxes - but it isn't always a bot, occasionally a human "augments" the process.

It isn't hard to understand the allure of chatbots. They offer all the automative benefits of a self-driving car with none of the "physics is really hard" pitfalls.

Furthermore, through search engines, video games, and command lines, we've become quite good at talking to computers in a way they understand. (I don't want to give the impression that bot-making is without risks. Exhibit A, exhibit B. We've been trying to get this right for like two decades.)

It's even easier to understand why Facebook want in on this. When you control the platform you control the rules. WeChat makes a lot of money by controlling "WeChat Wallet," the payment system within their app.

Change at this level is difficult. Thousands of vulnerable people are are employed in call centres in New Zealand. They aren't going to be replaced by Facebook chatbots tomorrow, but as we look forward to a future without hold times, it's always helpful to keep the humans whose lives we might change in mind.

 - Stuff


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