TECH TALK: BILL MAGEE says there is a lot at stake in the battle for chatbots
Big Tech titans Microsoft and Google went head-to-head last week showcasing their respective attempts to transform the way we search for information and even how we hold conversations. You might just get an inkling there’s more to their digital face-off than mere corporate pride. Headed up by “chatbots”, at stake is what is estimated to be a multi-trillion-pound market based on technology’s “holy grail” – artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Online chat conversations via text-to-speech or just text, are computer programs used as an alternative to human-to-human contact. They’re being used increasingly by business and commerce, along with consumer and social media outlets.
Chatbots are used for customer service, requests and information gathering. At the moment most are accessed via website pop-ups or virtual assistants.
They are still seen mostly as providing pre-programmed responses to questions asked about insurance claims or booking a hotel. But the new generation can hold a conversation, argue a legal case and, within a few seconds, write poetry.
Techies describe the development of generative AI software tools as “transformative” on a scale similar to the emergence of the internet.
Microsoft has integrated the latest model, “ChatGPT” – developed by San Francisco’s OpenAI – into its struggling Bing search engine and Edge web browser, while Google has use it to provide a defence to its domination of search with its Shakespearean-inspired “Bard”.
Unfortunately, Google’s launch demonstration was a disaster, to put it mildly. With so much at stake, ChatGPT got a question wrong: it delivered inaccurate information about the James Webb Space Telescope.
After what was called a “big blunder”, Google’s parent company Alphabet saw $100 billion wiped off its market capitalisation.
Launch setbacks aside, Microsoft and Google each see massive revenue earners from their respective chatbot offerings, including e-commerce, entertainment, finance, health, education, news, politics. You name it.
Many chatbots already employed by businesses run on messaging apps or via SMS commonly used for B2C customer service, sales and marketing.
In 2016 Facebook Messenger enabled developers to place chatbots on their platforms. The following year it developed into a pilot program on WhatsApp and KLM.
Previous generations of chatbots were present on websites stretching back to the mid-1960s and more recently they’ve included IBM’s Watson-powered “Rocky” to provide, amongst other things, data to prospective diamond buyers.
There’s even an “Hello Barbie” internet-connected doll that uses a chatbot from the company ToyTalk, following on from a range of smartphone-based characters for children.
On the upside, the chatbots may one day remove the need for tiresome and laborious conversations with the council, your insurer or landlord. On the other hand, there are dangers in mimicking human behaviour and conversations to get chat room participants to reveal personal information, as well as unsolicited adverts and scams.
Job losses are already evident. McKinsey & Company estimates that such automation processes will displace between 400 and 800 million jobs by 2030, requiring 375 million people to switch job categories entirely.
It’s evident there is much at stake in terms of enhancing future productivity and market cap, above all becoming market leader in the chatbot and wider artificial intelligence marketplace.
Just ask Microsoft and Google. But don’t make the question too difficult…