Here come the bots

Trendy geeky thing of the moment: bots. You'll be hearing a lot about them in the near future (if you haven't already), so here's a quick take on them.

Bots are programs that do stuff for you. You interact with them through messages. They learn as you keep on interacting with them. That's it.

The closest thing you have right now is Siri in iPhone, or Cortana in Windows. You ask for something, they respond. The more you ask, the more they fine tune their responses. In both cases, voice is the input method, but short messages seem to be getting traction as the next coolest thing. Imagine interacting with some bot through WhatsApp by exchanging texts. You write your new virtual friend and he does useful things for you (book a table, buy some cinema tickets, ...). I guess if you text him a lot, he will end up knowing you enough to send you a picture of a black guy with a huge c#[k (in the end that's what you really want... y lo sabes).

Is this so disruptive to get so many nerds excited? First, the threshold to get a nerd excited is fairly low, so let's discount that to begin with. Next, it's definitely a new way of framing user interaction and, more importantly, a first step at creating a framework for integrating artificial intelligence into any app.

Now, question worth asking: texting a machine is a step forward or backwards? Messaging has become such a natural form of human communication that doing it with a machine sparks some sort of magical feeling. "Hey, I'm talking to a machine!" We've probably long forgotten this feeling but that's what I felt back in 1984 when I first saw someone typing words on a green screen. Hit Enter. The screen fills up with more green stuff! Wow, the computer responded! Amazing! So, yes, texting a machine brings back some of that magic.

It's interesting to see how the advent of the graphical user interface, Windows essentially, killed the sense of dialogue with the computer that the command line had (command line is that black screen you wrote instructions in). Windows wrapped that dialogue into a metaphor that tricked us into thinking that we are physically manipulating objects in the screen, and that was the end of the essence of computing: that you send instructions, the system computes a result, and spits out the response; even though that is exactly what happens when you move a window from one place to another, as all of us programmers are very well aware of. Bots are a way to send us back to that era, and no surprise you get the juices of a bunch of nerds flowing because those days were so much better, and we were oh so much more special.

But windows won for a reason, right? Convenience, essentially. It's so much easier to click a button than type... And I guess that's true even today, right? So if all a bot is bringing is just a way to type your way through an app, my bet is they will fade away soon, once the magic is outweighed by the frustration of spending like 20 seconds (20 seconds!) typing instructions instead of tapping twice on the screen (2 seconds). Most bots will die, that's for sure, so prepare those graveyards because this is a game where only the smartest survive. Bring in the second element: intelligence.

This bot thing will be a playground for the so long awaited artificial intelligence. I can totally buy a future in which my photos bot app allows me to ask for "that photo I took with my wife when we celebrated her birthday." Or think your email bot: "can you text me if nobody answers this email in 2 days?" There are requests that are still better described through natural language than through a structured set of fields. If you've ever used Fantastical to schedule a meeting, you know what I'm talking about.

Whether technology is there yet I'm not so sure. Siri is still a pretty frustrating toy, to be honest. I'm skeptical, then. But we all agree that this is just a matter of time, I guess. This iteration on bots will probably not be the one, but it will surely teach us one thing or two. So if you are interested, play with some bots or develop others, you'll have plenty of choices very soon.