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Dumb Bot

Chatbots Are Your Newest, Dumbest Co-Workers

May 5, 2016
Chatbots, the much-hyped future of the Internet, have had a rough start in the consumer world, but many of us might have our first taste of robot communication at the office.

Starting this July, when customer service employees at are too sick to come to work, they'll tell Mila they're not feeling well using an app on their phones or computers. "I'm sorry to hear that," Mila will respond. After a short exchange about logistics, Mila will send a message to the appropriate manager, who will adjust the employee's schedule. It sounds like a typical interaction with an office assistant. But Mila isn't an assistant. She's a chatbot.

Chatbots, the much-hyped future of the Internet, have had a rough start in the consumer world, but many of us might have our first taste of robot communication at the office. Millions of workers already interface with chatbots in the popular group chat platforms Slack and HipChat.

HipChat offers bots with different "personalities," like Sassy and Karma, that can accomplish different tasks, such as finding photos and counting things. Slack's bot—conveniently known as Slackbot—can be programmed to do work-related tasks, such as setting reminders and answering basic questions. Anticipating a bot boom, Slack last winter released Botkit to help developers build their own. The result has been bots such as Workbot, which lets people talk to other programs that integrate with Slack, like Salesforce and Mailchimp. 

The hope is bots will make internal employee communications faster, easier, and more fun and in turn save money.

At Overstock, for example, Mila will replace a more cumbersome call-in hotline for ill employees. Currently, when any of the 450 employees in Overstock's Salt Lake City call center feel under the weather, they pick up a phone and leave a message. Someone has to check those messages and tell a manager, who replaces the worker on the schedule. Chat's way is easier: Now the company can fill schedules and replace workers faster, which ultimately saves money. "Those seconds for each employee turn into dollars," said Stormy Simon, president of Overstock.

In addition to chatting in sick, employees can use Mila to schedule time off, check their schedules, and do a variety of other tasks that used to require making a phone call, sending an e-mail, or (gasp) talking to a fellow human.

The use case for work chatbots, so far, is pretty low-level. Most bots simply provide people with already available information. Aspect, the company behind Mila, has signed up a variety of other businesses, including the Edwardian Blu hotel chain and a cable provider. Aspect's Joe Gagnon, who worked on Mila, sees potential uses in restaurants and the insurance and mortgage industries. "Any questions internally can be handled," he said. "What's the coffee of the month? What's the shipping time for something in my resale location?” he offered as examples.

Microsoft, which in March shakily introduced its bot Tay, has a chatbot for employees called ADbot that mines the corporate directory for information. The company is also working on building a bot on top of its intranet so employees can ask a digital assistant simple questions, such as what's for lunch at the cafe.

This is all information that isn't hard to find sans robot friends, a point Aspect's Gagnon conceded. But, he argued, chatbots will make it easier for uninformed workers to seek out information they need even if it's something simple, such as the location of a meeting. "We would rather get lost than ask for directions," he said. "The bot gives you a chance to be a little less knowledgable than you want to be."

Chatbots, in general, haven't lived up to their potential. They're annoying, not very smart, and potential racists—personality traits that seem like a liability in the workplace. Overstock's Simon isn't worried. "It's definitely a technology that will have the opportunity to evolve and get better." Mila, and other bots, are indeed programmed to get smarter, but that's how they learn inappropriate behaviors. 

Today's work bots are far from sentient co-workers. In fact, they fall on the other end of the spectrum: kinda lame. "A lot of the buzz comes around this magical nonhuman thing that answers questions, something that is more like a movie than reality today," said Michael Facemire, an analyst at Forrester. "The reality today is it's simply a better way to do simple things." 

Simplicity might be enough for the workplace for now. In fact, the most useful work bots won't be all that smart. "A majority of bots might not even be intelligent, they're just convenient," said Beerud Sheth, the chief executive of GupShup, which makes a variety of chatbots, including a sales tracker and an accounting bot. "You’ll neither love them nor hate them. You’ll like the fact that they're easy," Sheth added. 

Mila is just that: convenient. It will make a generally banal and somewhat onerous task slightly more pleasant, which has potential returns. "It's happier, it's easier, and seamless," said Overstock's Simon. "What's the price on that? I'm not sure. But I know it matters."

With assistance from Dina Bass in Seattle.