Bots, A Look At Practical Apps

The definition of a robot or bot according to the dictionary is: A mechanical device that sometimes resembles a human and is capable of performing a variety of often complex human tasks on command or by being programmed in advance.

Today there are millions of bots or robots in existence, doing thousands of different jobs daily. There are many varieties, from the latest electronic floor cleaners to the most advanced artificial intelligence systems. There are physical robots that can walk, talk, & dance like Honda”s Asimo. There are several kinds of manufacturing robots, mechanical arms that weld, bolt, and cut in car factories and assembly lines all over the world. There are robots that mimic facial expressions, talk online, attempt to think like humans, and some of the most advanced of our time are exploring Mars light years away from Earth.

Online Bots
On the web, “bots” is often used to describe user agents like those employed by search engines like Google and Yahoo. These are aka spiders, crawlers, robots, and more. However there is also a class of online bots that use such services like AOL Instant Messenger & MSN. They make use of programming languages like Perl and Visual Basic to interface with software or protocols to communicate with humans and find data. Many online bots use a form of AI to carry conversations with humans that interact with them, including languages like AIML, LISP, and others. Some don”t have an AI at all and cannot talk, but provide data or information in different ways. These bots can be separated into two classes:  AI/chat-oriented and service/information-oriented. Such bots could be one or both.

AI/Chat Oriented
These bots” primary purpose is to have natural language conversations with humans. Some of the famous chat-type AI are Eliza, Ractor, and the more recent Alice. Some of these had a core function inherent in their chat ability. Eliza for example was designed to determine the psychological profile of the person it spoke to, much like a psychologist. Today there are several thousand chat bots online, all in various forms with different purposes, features, and indeed even personalities. The primary interfaces are via instant messaging clients and websites, where the user can initiate a conversation. These bots are limited in scope in that they”re only designed for talking and cannot do much else beyond making assumptions based on natural language, although many are capable of limited reasoning and thinking.

Service/Information Oriented
Bots of this type are generally used to provide information on a variety of subjects to the user. Common applications range from providing daily horoscopes, local weather, and other data-dependent services. These bots typically don”t have conversational ability, but there are many that can do both, including some that do so through natural language. There are also specialized bots in this class, which provide very specific information or services.

These bots are the more intriguing class since they”re capable of so much more than just interpreting responses, and it is also this type that has made more of an advancement. Although both fields move at a rapid pace, providing information and data is a more practical application.

Where from Here?
The future of IM bots will be in providing specific information or services, especially in the enterprise and business world. Companies that utilize large databases or lots of information would be an ideal environment. This would be most advantageous where employees already use instant messaging in their daily collaboration and communication. Some of the possibilities:

An instant messaging or web bot can provide information to remote users without the complications of network logins or VPN.
Open source and well known languages make it easy to customize.
They don”t need web access, just an IM client and a connection.
Fast, ready access to just about any information in an environment most users are already comfortable with.

An entire range of information could be presented in this form. The applications are only limited by imagination and the programmer”s abilities.

Centralized information management would allow everyone to have instant access to the same information in real time.
A single bot could provide the interface to limitless amounts of company information and data for every employee.
Such systems could even be given their own AI personalities tailored to the specifics of the application itself.
Natural language could be used to provide data, eliminating the need for users/employees to learn complicated commands or procedures.
This data could easily be provided to cell phones and PDAs with instant messaging capabilities.

The list could go on, but the idea of such uses isn’t new. Although some are skeptical about the viability of a bot in such a role, there are successful apps already in production environments in the real world. Some interesting ones:

Amazon ASIN search bot from “Amazon Hacks” by Paul Bausch.
The Wall Street Journal bot
The HR Agent from Active Buddy
(Editors note: Active Buddy is now called Colliqus and has moved into automated customer service software that converses in natural language with users.)
AOL’s IM Service for the Hearing Impaired
Keeblers RecipeBuddy (Note: This now appears to be dead since resolves to Kellogs now.)
IBM”s Lotus Sametime bots

Clearly even these uses have a downside since web/server based applications could easily provide the same services and already do, but latest trends show many systems being integrated with IM. A robot application of this nature could become an inexpensive and easy way to provide enterprise-level information and could easily integrate into existing server based systems. It is here in this arena that the use of bots becomes a more compelling solution. Microsoft has an interesting white paper about the subject. Although it focuses primarily on using the RTC Client API, it outlines bot-type applications.

The Future
Bots will always be around even if there is never any real mass appeal for their use. There is a strong hobby community, and many skilled coders operating them. There are several initiatives being taken in the instant messaging industry at the moment that may make the future a lot brighter for the concept though. Currently most of the major IM networks such as AOL & Microsoft have begun offering enterprise instant messaging products geared specifically toward business. This was in light of employees beginning to use consumer oriented IM networks for work matters, and several companies scrambled to provide IM gateway software or enterprise versions of their services.\r\n\r\nMicrosoft currently offers Live Communications Server to businesses for enterprise messaging and collaboration. Recently they announced future versions will allow it”s users to talk to others on AIM, MSN, and Yahoo, boosting IM interoperability. We may eventually see all instant messaging services able to communicate with one another, opening a whole new world. Enterprise systems like these also offer some tantalizing possibilities with IM bots, which could actually enhance such a system.\r\n\r\nSo while the future doesn”t have any killer app for bots out there just yet, clearly their use and research will help advance the science and some amazing technology has already demonstrated their usefulness. Although there is much debate on the subject, they will be around for a long time to come. No if, ands, or bots about it.

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