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Why chatbots need a personality

By Marcus Lambert

In case you missed the memo, there is a chatbot revolution waiting in our immediate future that promises to change almost every aspect of our lives. Whether we are attempting to book a major meeting or treating ourselves to a new winter wardrobe, it seems a new generation of virtual friends are already on hand to ensure we get everything we want but not necessarily need.

Our world is engulfed by a tech-fueled hyper change that makes it incredibly difficult to understand just how quickly our world is evolving. For example, it was only three years ago that Spike Jonez released the movie ‘Her‘ set in the future about a lonely soul who becomes increasingly fascinated by an operating system that answers to the name Samantha.

Here in 2016, we are already inviting virtual digital assistants into our homes. For example, Amazon Echo sales have reached 3M units as consumer awareness and interest continues to grow.

There was also a poignant moment in a TV show called Mr. Robot recently where a lonely character finding herself asking Amazon Alexa if the device loves her. The operating system behind Amazon Echo replied: “That’s not the kind of thing I am capable of” The more cynical amongst you will be more horrified at Amazon’s blatant product placement in a TV show, but it perfectly illustrates how humans and technology are interacting.

Chatbots are widely seen as an antidote to the soulless monologue that arrives through the medium of an automated email from a do not reply mailbox. Let’s be honest; we have grown weary of downloading more apps that we seldom use. Meanwhile, the thought of introducing yet another username or password into our life just adds to our list of first world problems.

A chatbot should be able to lighten the mood to add some much-needed fun to the proceedings. Proactive communication from brands doesn’t need to be intrusive, especially if it is delivered with from a device with a memorable personality that users can genuinely relate to.

When Microsoft unleashed a chatbot called “” to illustrate how the technology can learn through conversations in real-time, the results were infamously catastrophic. The software giant failed to predict that the malicious intent that conflicted with their principles and values would not come from the machines but its users.

It’s important to remember that it was the human design that enabled Tay to learn and develop the very worst side of human behaviour. On this occasion, the technology acted as a black mirror of sorts that served as a warning that our biggest threat is not technology, but ourselves.

Upon reaching this revelation, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that many consumers sometimes trust chatbots more than other humans. However, the biggest challenges facing even the best-scripted bots is the inability to understand every nuance of human communication that we take for granted.

Emotions such as empathy or an understated giggle to an amusing or sarcastic answer, for example, is where we this technology still needs to improve. Chatbots also need to detect any form negative emotion and escalate to their human masters accordingly to prevent making a bad situation even worse.

As users, we are currently quite patient with our virtual assistants who are still learning our quaint human ways. An increasing number of websites are using bots to proactively offer guidance and remember our details to make the customer journey as painless as possible.

However, for this technology to reach its true potential, it needs to offer much more than just repeated purchase suggestions or discount vouchers to prevent us from abandoning our virtual shopping baskets. The promised land of seamless social transactions will require a healthy injection of personality. Bots will need to understand when to be empathetic and when to add natural small talk or humour where appropriate.

Only when bots reach the ability to synthesise human emotions naturally will we begin to see genuine progress. Automating menial job roles will make many wary of treading this path. But it’s crucial to remember that it should be used to allow humans to concentrate on valuable activities.

Whether it’s the creation of new products and services or developing a stronger relationship with existing and potential new customers, people need to concentrate on their strengths. The time is coming to hand over the keys to repeatable tasks to machines and this is no bad thing.

Advancements in technology are showing no signs of slowing down. It’s time to get back to being human and honing our often neglected skills of creativity, innovation, intuition, imagination and compassion on a daily basis. Man and machine should complement each other perfectly, so why would anyone imprison themselves performing mindless repeatable tasks?

As for the impending chatbot revolution, those that simply implement an automated bot that provides the same limited responses will fail fast. However, businesses that can ensure their chatbots master the art of human conversation will quickly establish a significant advantage over their competitors.

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