The Bots Are Coming

Slack is the fastest growing startup in history, and it is starting to drive a new kind of interface for users to make things happen within their businesses.

If you remember way back the only way you could interact with a computer was through a command line.  With this interface you form very specific commands that require a manual for reference. Then with the advent of the mouse and graphical operating systems, these command line tools were mostly replaced with buttons and menus. This opened up computers to a new level of novice users, but there still was a need for manuals and books to learn how to use all these graphical applications.

Today we have two new possible interfaces for how you can make computers do what you want.  Voice systems like Siri offer a compelling next generation way to talk to a computer with your voice but the technical demands for integrating this technology is still FAR too difficult to make it work with arbitrary custom software.  The other option is bots that run in chat systems like Slack that can offer natural language interfaces that blur the boundary between what we have come to expect of computers and what the future may be like.

Slack

The other night I programmed a quick slack bot powered by the script from The Big Lebowski (one of the best movies ever).  This simple script interacts with the user in a conversational way and took less than 1 hour to implement.

This type of interaction offers a future where we can casually talk (through typing) to the computer and have it do things on our behalf.  It doesn’t require a manual to know how to specify commands.

This seems like a step in the right direction towards a broad range of tools that work in a more natural way.  Ultimately replacing the text input with voice will bring us to a Star Trek style future. But until that time comes we will be continuing to develop frameworks that allow developers to create interesting tools that know how to interact with users naturally.

These bots can trigger plenty of things that might not have been possible with other interfaces.

>> matt: hey @meeting_assistant, start a meeting with @jack and @jill

>> meeting_assistant: ok @matt, join the Google hangout <here>, I’ll keep meeting minutes of anything you type in here.

>> matt: @jack can you contact the client about that thing at that place tomorrow?

>> meeting_assistant: @jack I added a reminder to your calendar for this ^^

>> matt: @meeting_assistant, all done.

>> meeting_assistant: ok, I’ll email the meeting minutes to everyone.

This sort of theoretical chat bot is now entirely possible and it may just usher in a new age of business communications.  It’s now easy to forego the large enterprise application development cycles and instead focus on small text based services that can easily be deployed.

The future of this kind of interaction may create a new opportunities to reduce costs and streamline business functions.  By triggering messages based on external events it’s possible to prompt employees to their maintain their workflows, or reward them automatically:

>> time_bot: @matt, you haven’t recorded your time for yesterday.  please update your timesheet.

>> overtime_bot: @matt, thanks for staying late, but it’s time to get back to your family

>> kpi_bot: @matt, your performance has been exemplary this week, we’re sending you an Amazon gift card as a thank you.  Keep up the good work.

I think this could be a big shift in how businesses run.  And companies that take advantage of this next generation technology stand to gain a tremendous competitive advantage in the coming years.