By Richard Copland

This week 20 years ago IBM’s Deep Blue defeats Gary Kasparov in a game of chess. Deep Blue’s victory against Kasparov represented a major milestone in the history of AI. But its win was more a testament to the brilliance of its team of programmers and grandmasters, as well as to the computational power of the contemporary hardware, than to any inherent intelligence in the program itself.

Picking up on the topic I covered in my recent thought piece on in Democracy innovation and return of social led engagement and drawing my series on Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Robots to close prior to my visit to the future of work and workspace summit.

The combination of smartphones and apps was a game changer for productivity and interactivity, but this isn’t the end of it as the user interface is upgraded to voice. This piece will explore the rise of Bots or software programs that are adding a new dimension to our relationship with technology and how we work.

A virtual workforce

According to ComScore in 2016, we spend most of our screen time using just three apps, with the average American spending almost half their time in just one. As you might have guessed, the most popular type of apps is Messaging. With the power and reach of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and Skype, developers have started turning once-simple chat apps into complex ecosystems. At the heart of it is a range of obedient bots.

For those who received one of Amazon’s bestselling holiday gift this year, they will be well versed in using the Echo and treating it as a new family member, or those using Facebook messenger to send money with Transferwise.

When we think of how we interact with software, it is very probable you used a mouse, keyboard or touchscreen to get the task done. This means following the more than 30-year-old rules of software, it is the software that dictates the rules of engagement, not you. Now, thanks to bots or software robots, those rules are changing.

On chat platforms in China, government services in Singapore and speech-based personal assistants in the UK, bots are taking over. The next user interface won’t be based on skeuomorphic design or muddled menus; it will be based on simple conversation. From Slack to WeChat, Kik to Facebook Messenger, and Telegram to Amazon Alexa, bots are becoming the main interface between humans and machines.

Investors are seeing it as a huge opportunity and believe that within the next few years “bots will be in the fabric of everything”. General Catalyst a venture fund based in the US is investing in and working with startups will take bots mainstream. At present, the bots receiving investment are not intelligent, human-like assistants; they are far simpler. They act as the interface with software through speech, text, emojis, images, video or other means. The key thing is it is straightforward and the user doesn’t really have to learn how to use it, they just have a conversation and off you go. The bot lets you do whatever you want without having to navigate through a stack of options.”

Robotic Process Automation otherwise known as your virtual assistant or bot

The exact definition of what a bot is varies on whom you ask. For those in the Deepmind camp, a bot is a sophisticated, artificial-intelligence-infused creation capable of understanding pretty much any interaction. For the other end of the spectrum, these Robotic Process Automation (RPA) devices are an intentionally dumb interface, capable of understanding only a limited number of predetermined commands. Whereas the former seeks to ace the Turing test by engaging a user in a conversation, the latter might simply want to know your food order for Deliveroo.

Bots can be described as having the AI basics.  As we enter the goldrush era for bots there remain several misunderstandings. The biggest one is that they should talk like people. When I interact with a bot to do something it doesn’t have to engage in small talk, I’m just looking for it to evaluate my needs and deliver the correct outcome in the quickest possible manner.

Best to consider Automation as part of wider changes in future of work and workspace

There is no shortage of investment going into this technology space and its fair to say they are still searching for its killer product. But when you begin to consider the potential impact on organisations digital transformations the size of the prize becomes substantive as almost no tasks remain off limits from automation for bots.

One of the new breed of offerings is Growbot, a messaging bot that listens for and encourages praise on Slack. When Growbot identifies praise it reacts, keeps a tally of who’s saying what and compiles a report for managers.

These bots are assisting people to complete potentially frustrating tasks that aren’t core to their job like: file expense reports, get budget approval or order new office supplies.  Bots can act as part of the virtual workforce and solve those tasks in a quick way.

Slack is driving innovation and creativity in this space, but as with all good things, they won’t be alone for long. You can expect the industrial platform provides such as Microsoft to going long on this too.  Now, we are very much in generation 1.0 for bots where there isn’t really a conversation it a straight forward task request.  As per the advert – What’s the weather like? Play me a song.

Envoy is another bot which integrates with Slack that sends direct messages to employees whenever someone arrives at the office to see them. It solves a simple, non-core job task in a straightforward way, without staff needing to install and learn a new system.  This is a perfect example of non-core friction being removed from worker’s worlds that allow them to work smarter, even at a basic level.

Process Automation roadmap is so much more than automation

Bots have been a part of lives in one of our technology mainstream components for almost 20 years- it’s called Google search. Why has it taken so long for design to move away from a skeuomorphic approach? Why should ordering a pizza involve downloading an app, signing up for an account and then finding the menu option for extra cheese? The great promise of bots is that they will break down the stubborn barrier between human and machine and make scores of apps redundant. Informed commentators are forecasting will be talking to most apps by 2019.  Personally, I see that as a reach, but very much expect the continued augmentation of technology on our work.

“Bots are the new apps,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella declared in March 2016. They have gone big on bots with their open-source Bot Builder, but one that could enable to it become the leading provider.

So, what’s the gig for Microsoft? Whenever a user interacts with a bot built on its platform, even if it is deployed on Slack, Facebook Messenger or elsewhere, Microsoft’s AI gets smarter. In my first thought piece Leaving the robotics labs and coming to a workspace or home near you I called out the IPO of Blue Prism, a dedicated provider of software robots, but you could make a credible argument that soon they’ll be no real separation and the bot interface will come as standard in the same way in face the web browser has done.

In October 2009, Apple launched in-app purchases for the App Store. The software industry hasn’t looked back. According to analysts IDC, revenue from mobile apps, not including advertising, was around $34.2 billion in 2015.

For bots, the opportunity could be even greater. Not only do messaging apps have a captive audience, the cost of developing bots is lower than for apps. App developers have been able to learn from the introduction of prior interfaces because it wasn’t long ago that mobile apps came on the scene. It took a few years in mobile. It will take less time for bots to allow us to work even smarter.

This is the last of my miniseries to unpack some of the aspects of the technology challenge and the impact of robotics on the future of work and workspace. It is a broad church of many faiths and components from the industrial robots such as Baxter through to humanoid creations like Erica.  I remain convinced that the big opportunity in automation is likely to be in collecting, storing and interpreting the vast amounts of data that operations produce. These are the things that get the more traditional business technology services vendors and CIOs very excited.  The challenge we face in businesses will remain an age old one, how do we respond to this level of innovation and what will or worlds look like when we embrace the change.