Chatbots – software that uses normal language to communicate with people through text or voice – have become a common alternative to web browsing to find information or carry out routine tasks. But for some, they are having a more profound impact.
In her 2017 book, To Siri, with love, Judith Newman writes about how her teenage son Gus, who is autistic, built a close relationship with Apple’s Siri voice chatbot. It tirelessly and politely answered his questions about weather conditions and public transport, which Newman believes improved his conversations with humans and made him happier in general. At one point, her son proposed marriage to Siri, to receive a graceful turn-down of, “My end user agreement does not include marriage.”
Through talking to Siri’s creators, Newman came to realise the vast amount of work that goes into allowing general-use chatbots to respond with apparent intelligence.
“Language is one of the hardest problems in artificial intelligence,” says Daniel Polani, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Hertfordshire. “If you see language as an iceberg, with humans there is a small percentage above water and the rest is underwater. With chatbots, it’s made of Styrofoam – it’s all above water.”
In other words, chatbots are good at handling questions they have been programmed to answer, not at understanding knotty problems. This means they lend themselves to specific applications.
Software provider Intuit has introduced a question-answering chatbot to help users of its QuickBooks accountancy software.
QuickBooks Assistant was primarily intended to provide an easy route to users’ own data, such as their expected tax bill. But Shaun Shirazian, UK head of product management, says he has been surprised by the volume of questions on how to use the product – as well as people asking odd things such as whether Assistant loves them. Siri isn’t the only chatbot getting chatted up.
Shirazian says QuickBooks Assistant was based on the problems customers reported through other support methods, such as email and its call centre. Intuit measures how long it takes to resolve problems: “It’s seconds with the assistant, versus minutes through alternative ways,” he says. Users are asked if the response answered their questions, adding follow-up questions if not. The company uses machine learning to analyse this feedback and make improvements.
The company, which has made QuickBooks Assistant available to users of software for self-employed workers in Canada, the UK and the US, is considering making the chatbot proactive.
“We could reach out when the customer needs some help,” says Shirazian, adding that it is aware of the need to do so without being intrusive or annoying. The next step is for chatbots to understand the full context in which queries are made. “We’re not there yet, but it’s soon to come,” he adds.
Chatbots can be used to support education. For the past three years, BI (Bedriftøkonomisk Institutt) Norwegian Business School has been developing its use of a chatbot from Norwegian startup Differ to help students engage with their courses.
“A study in 2014 showed that teachers at BI struggled to find ways of engaging students in large classes,” says Anne Swanberg, director of the school’s LearningLab. “The bot has been an important part in testing how increased student engagement can be automated.” This includes introducing students to each other when they first log in, to encourage them to collaborate.
Overall, Swanberg says the chatbot has led to 19 times more engagement in terms of the number of participating students, compared with its previous solution.
“I think that the main advantage is automatic and personalised follow-ups of students,” says Swanberg, such as answering questions immediately at any time and being able to react to specific behaviour, or lack of it, by each student. “This market is still in its infancy, but together with Differ we have found clear indications when a bot can and should be used for educational purposes.”
Chatbots for mental health
The potential for chatbots in mental health was first considered more than half a century ago, when Joseph Weizenbaum, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, built the pioneering natural language program Eliza.
This reframed a human user’s statements as questions and otherwise prompted the speaker to continue, in the style of person-centred therapy developed by psychologist Carl Rogers. Confiding to a web version of Eliza that “I am having problems with my chatbot” produces the reply “Did you come to me because you are having problems with your chatbot?”
Woebot is a more sophisticated mental health chatbot, based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a talking therapy widely used for depression, anxiety and other disorders. Available through Apple and Android devices or Facebook Messenger, it focuses on coaching and tracking users’ moods over time.
“This is a chatbot built by psychologists rather than technologists,” says Woebot Labs’ founder and chief executive, Alison Darcy, adding that about 80% of what it says is scripted. It does not aim to provide diagnoses. “We’re much more on the helpful coaching side. Woebot is an automated guide to a self-guided programme,” she says.
From Woebot’s robotic logo and name, to references made in chat, users are reminded that they are talking to software rather than a human. “There’s a huge section of the population that is put off by talking to another person,” says Darcy. “People deserve an anonymous place where they can share things, which is sensitive but where they are not judged by another person. People can get something off their chests, without managing the impression.”