Why 2017 will be the year of the bot

2017 is set to be the year of the bot, but there are a few barriers in the way. From racist chatbots to robosexuality, we examine some of the trends in artificial intelligence that could detract the sector's evolution as a business accelerator.

Among the bestsellers of the holiday season were Amazon.com’s Echo and Google Home. These bots communicate with their users through speakers, and their built-in microphones hear from across a room. When Echo hears the name “Alexa,” its LED ring lights up in the direction of the user to acknowledge that it is listening. It answers questions, plays music, orders Amazon products and tells jokes. Google Home can also manage Google accounts, read and write emails, and keep track of calendars and notes. On the mobile front, Cortana and Siri have long supported users with their internet searches, map directions and help calling and texting contacts.

Open API: connecting the world

Google and Amazon have both opened up their devices to third-party developers who have built on the bot infrastructure so that Alexa and Google Home can now order pizza, book tickets, turn on lights and make phone calls. With the rise in wearables and the sheer amount of health and fitness data measured and stored on these devices, we aren’t too far away from connecting that data to these bots so they can help people stick to their diet and exercise plans and remember to take their medication or go for their doctor’s appointments. These bots can easily track the contents of your fridge, and even stock it with food it knows you like, or is good for you. Worst case scenario: it can call an ambulance for you when you need it the most.

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By the year 2020, Gartner predicts that the average person will interact more with bots than they will with their partner. Bots have been around for more than 50 years as automatons that make our lives easier. Now, our electric devices become increasingly cognisant, from scheduling calendar reminders, to financial bots offering instant updates on your bank balance or quickly tracking expenses. Each interaction is efficient, personalised and contextual, explains PayPal’s Meron Colbeci.

Sending Money? There’s a bot for that

PayPal announced its entrance into bot-based services today, building on the Slack platform to launch PayPal’s first bot to make moving and managing money even easier for its customers. . “With 5 million daily active users, Slack is a messaging platform for teams that centralises your conversations and makes them instantly accessible wherever you go. Now with the PayPal bot, you can send money between PayPal accounts without leaving your Slack conversation,” Colbeci says.

Whether your colleague picked up the tab at lunch or you are chipping in for a group gift for a teammate’s birthday, sending money from your PayPal account to a friend’s is as easy as typing, “/PayPal send £5 to @Dave.”

The PayPal bot is available to Slack users in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US.

“Today, person-to-person payments (P2P) is one of the most used features on PayPal. In 2015 alone, PayPal Holdings processed $41 billion in P2P volume across PayPal, Venmo and Xoom – a 42 per cent increase in P2P TPV year-on-year. In-context P2P payment solutions like the PayPal bot, voice activated payments through our recent Siri integration and in email via Microsoft’s Outlook.com are examples of how PayPal is continually contextualising how you move your money,” Colbeci adds.

AI: getting smarter everyday

Just as a child learns how to recognise and differentiate objects in its early development, so too can artificial intelligence (AI) software. This has become possible because of deep learning, which allows machines to learn through neural networks–not too different from how Star Trek: The Next Generation’s lovable and uncannily human Android, Lieutenant Commander Data’s positronic brain functions.

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In neural networks, information is processed in layers, and the connections between these layers are strengthened based on experience. In short, they learn much like a human brain. Neural networks learn by looking at examples and forming associations, which is why Google can now recognise what a cat looks like, after processing millions of images of cats.

The more devices that are in use, the more people feed into them, the more they will learn collectively, and the smarter the technology will become. Every time you search for answers to life’s mundane questions, you’re feeding the Google machine with what you find interesting. Every time you look for cute cat videos or funny dogs and make your choice, Google learns what you find cute, or funny, and can bring those videos up first–and faster–in your next search.

AI bots make great listeners

Alexa and Google Home listen to everything that is happening in your house, and learn from your answers. By observing our behaviour, our choices, and our routines, they learn how we think and live, as well as what would make us happy or sad. With all this information at their fingertips, experts question the privacy risks and possible abuse of data that may occur. Neither Amazon nor Google have been transparent in what they plan to use all this data for, or how these companies plan to keep consumers’ information safe from hackers.

Another cause for concern may be our tendency to anthropomorphise non-living entities that serve or please us. Many pet owners refer to themselves as “mummy” or “daddy” in relation to their domestic animals.

Robosexuality and the threat to business robotics

According to a recent report, hundreds of thousands of people thank Siri after it runs a search, or wishes Alexa ‘good morning’ every day. Half a million people so far have said “I love you” to Alexa, and more than a quarter of a million have asked Alexa to marry them.

Leading artificial intelligence expert and author of Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, David Levy recently said that he expects human-robot marriages to become commonplace by 2050, citing the example of a French woman, simply known as Lilly, who is in a relationship with a robot she 3D printed herself.


Lilly says she’s in love with her robot creation, Inmoovator.

At a time when people are proposing to bots, it’s not impossible to think that our over-reliance and familiarity with AI bots may make us imbue it with human-like characteristics that may leave us vulnerable.

Abusing AI bots by teaching it the “wrong” things is also a very real threat. Last year, Microsoft unveiled Tay, a Twitter bot that was meant to be an experiment in “conversational understanding.” According to Microsoft, the more you chat with Tay, the smarter it gets, learning to engage people through “casual and playful conversation.” Microsoft had successfully trialled the bot in China for two years without a hitch (XiaoIce on Weibo and WeChat), but let loose in the rest of the world, it only took 24 hours for Tay to learn the most racist, sexist and homophobic phrases from engaging with internet trolls.

The Chinese chatbot, XiaoIce, went viral within 72 hours and has over 40 million users in China and Japan. The success of XiaoIce in China suggests that AI bots may thrive in regulated environments, so it can focus on functionality over what’s funny or entertaining. In China, the internet is heavily regulated, and certain inflammatory words are censored, which shaped the way XiaoIce evolved.

Stealing our jobs?

Improvements in productivity and efficiency, driven by robotics and AI, are widely predicted. Yet there are conflicting views about what this would mean for jobs in the UK. Some expect rising unemployment as labour is substituted for AI-enabled machines.

Others foresee a transformation in the types of employment available, with the creation of new jobs compensating for those lost and AI augmenting existing roles, enabling humans to achieve more than they could on their own. Despite these differing views, there is general agreement that a much greater focus is needed on adjusting the UK’s education and training systems to deliver the skills that will enable people to adapt, and thrive, as new technology comes on stream.

Concerns about machines ‘taking jobs’ and eliminating the need for human labour have persisted for centuries. According to Dr Tania Mathias, interim chair of the Government’s science and technology committee, it is more plausible that we will see AI technology creating new jobs over the coming decades while at the same time displacing others. “Since we cannot yet foresee exactly how these changes will play out, we must respond with a readiness to re-skill and up-skill,” she says.

Along the same vein, accounting software provider, Sage, has over three decades of business software expertise under its belt. But the Newcastle-based tech company is constantly on trend-watch. Sage’s director of bots and AI, Kriti Sharma believes that staying competitive means knowing how to identify opportunities. “This is a very exciting time for all of us, AI is becoming very relevant in our daily lives and we have a great opportunity to shape it,” she explains.

“History shows that the development of new technology is an integral part of our evolution and helps make our lives more productive. When computers came to the workplace, many were worried about job loss, but in reality, technology has only made us more efficient and collaborative. The workforce should complement AI and not compete with it. With the rise of AI, new jobs are emerging – like data scientists for the more analytical minded and bot personality writers for those with a knack of language and design. My friend Tom, for example, is a conversation designer for AI, a job that would not have existed six months ago,” Sharma says.

AI: the ultimate problem-solver

AI has the potential to solve critical problems in healthcare, public services, environment. For example, AI can now provide preliminary diagnosis for those who don’t have access to healthcare and in radiology, human-AI teams have reached record low error rates.

AI systems are starting to have transformational impacts on everyday life: from driverless cars and supercomputers that can assist doctors with medical diagnoses, to intelligent tutoring systems that can tailor lessons to meet a student’s individual cognitive needs. Such breakthroughs raise a host of questions for society, including ethical issues about the transparency of AI decision-making as well as privacy and safety.

However, a key area for consideration is that we need to develop ethical codes for AI practitioners and ensure that AI does not learn gender or race bias as we have seen in a few cases such as AI not recognising African faces, or voice recognition technology not working well for female voices, according to Sharma. “As a community we need to work to course correct and make AI ethically sound whilst embracing all the positive opportunities ahead of us”.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.