Chatbots That Recommend The Hottest Bars and Terrible Geology Jokes: The December BAM Meetup Reviewed

After a cracking first meeting, my appetite was suitably whet to head on over to the December BAM (Bots, AI and Messaging) meetup. After a colossal year for chatbots, it was a fitting way to end. Spirits were high and we actually got to see some chatbots that had actually made their way out of the Proof of Concept stage, which are kinda like rocking horse sh*t at the moment.

The drunken lady

First up was Barchick. Operating in most of the large cities across the developed world, Barchick started life out as a digital media publishing site. Offering the usual bar reviews and party guides by destination, they build up a pretty decent following. They’re taking things in a much more exciting direction now though — venturing into the brave new world of chatbots.

Best logo ever

We all love a good stat, and the eager crowd certainly responded positive when Barchick rep Shayen Sanyal started his session off with a killer stat: 70% of consumers are in a chat app when making decisions about which bar to visit.

“If our audience is in a chat app, if we want to influence their choice of bars using our knowledge — we better get on the chat app platforms!”

Shayen made perfect sense and sums up a lot of the common sentiment amongst the chatbot community currently.

I don’t know what the % would be in other spaces, but this definitely scales into loads of industries too. A decent chunk of humanity lives almost their entire lives in chat apps now. Getting a presence inside the messaging apps will be the new gold rush.

And that they did. They now have a full live chat service providing a virtual concierge service in all of the city destinations they operate.

It has full SMS integration (you text a number for info), alternatively they currently integrate with Slack, the Barchick app and Facebook Messenger. A What’s App integration was ready for publishing imminently if it hasn’t already landed.

They’ve started cautiously. Currently, they have highly trained concierge professionals providing the human to human touch in the main. What they’re building very deliberately though is a full library of questions and responses that they’re using to build out an AI model. They’re looking to build the bot engagement steadily from the 20/80 bot to human response ratio they achieve currently. A bot taking all inbound messages by default and a 2nd line human intervention option would give them better economies of scale, but it would take longer to develop. So they’ve decided to lean more heavily on people than chatbots to deliver a great user experience and get it launched quickly. Fair play.

Their user platform also gives them cool opportunities to run segmented marketing campaigns for the hottest new gin on the market, or trendy new rum. With the recent news that Ads are going to be allowed on Facebook Messenger this could open up some interesting bot monetisation options for Barchick going forward.

She’s got that Viber

Viber is a funny old story. It really took off in a big way when it was launched 5 years ago. I’m based in the UK and I remember it being a big deal for all of a month or so. Being in this British bubble, I’d (wrongly) assumed that Viber had gone the way of many other boom and bust start ups. Oh how I was wrong. Sally Burtt Jones who was representing Viber gave some pretty impressive numbers on their user base. You see, when Viber died off in the UK as a result of Facetime, Facebook Messenger, What’s App and Snapchat: in Eastern Europe it’s just kept on growing and growing. This includes the mammoth market of Russia and it’s 150 million people.

Well, Viber were in town with the Bot community to let them know they’re all in on bots. They’ve created a number of different ways for brands and businesses to interact with their audiences on Viber via a chatbot.

There’s a self-service tool, giving human to human conversations between small businesses and Viber users. They also have a full chat API that can connect you chatbot, wherever it might have been developed, so they are trying to be as open as possibly with building a community.

The crowd were then created to an on-rails video demonstration of a few of the chatbots that brands had already created on the platform.

First up, an App that Huffington Post had created was shown. It was a basic, but really functional chatbot that recommended content on Netflix based on a chat interaction.

Less basic and certainly more controversial on the evening was the demonstration of a Serbian banking bot. The video showed the dialogue occurring between the user and the bot, which was designed to show a user applying for a loan. The audience were apprehensive to say the least and most put it down to the fact that the tone of voice that the chatbot was using was just far too familiar considering the topic at hand. There was an insane use of standard Viber stickers, which most of the audience saw as being inappropriate for a financial services brand to use. Our helpful Viber rep on the day was keen to point out it was just a Proof of Concept at this stage and a lot of the feedback already gleaned had been similar to that received on the night.

Some were nervous at the idea of actually applying for a loan online in that way from a security perspective, but as long as the platform offers the right level of encryption — it’s difficult to see how this could be any different to applying on a SSL encrypted web application form currently, which most of us will have done at some point in the last 10 years. Mike from BAM raised an interested point. He pointed to the fact that on mobile, traffic was extremely high and ecommerce transactions extremely low for a number of years until people felt in some way safe to start putting their card details into a mobile phone. He was wondering if this might be the same phenomenon at play and to be honest after hearing everything on the evening on balance I have to agree.

Forget robots– it’s all about Robbots

Unfortunately Robbot doesn’t come complete with a power-pouting avatar

If you’re a media publisher like Sony Music and you want to build a chatbot — how do you go about it? Well your assets are mainly record breaking artists, so the obvious but well placed choice would be to create a chatbot version of one of them. But which one? When you have an artist roster bursting at the seams with notable names including Beyonce, Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton — where on earth do you even begin?

Luckily Terry from Sony Music had a plan. “You see, we’d recently signed Robbie Williams from Universal and we wanted to make a big statement.” There’s nothing like a bitter rivalry to make decision making more emotional. Whether it was decision made in the heat of the moment or not aside, it probably seemed like as good an idea as any and they went to work.

I’m going to cover a separate post profiling this bot as I think the findings are particularly interesting and potentially far reaching to all bots that will be operating in the future. Because of the high profile nature of the subject matter it’s also probably had more chats than most bot too, so I think it’s only right that I give that bot its own article.

Roching out

Martin Lagrange from PubNub was up on the graveyard slot. Very bright guy, obviously, working for a significant tech brand. He’d just landed from the TechCrunch disrupt conference so was pretty fired up about the state of chatbots and the huge opportunity they present after seeing a vast number of them on show at TechCrunch.

Martin was over to show off Mr Rochbot, his multilingual chatbot which, erm, is all about Geology jokes and puns.

Q: Why shouldn’t you let a geologist drive your car? A: Because they get hammered and stoned.

This was an actual example that the chatbot showed.

That in itself might not be particularly odd, but considering it has one of the most significant supercomputers (IBM Watson) running at it’s core it does pose the question as to why.

Let’s just accept there are lots of people who might find this interesting/funny and move on. So what of the app itself. It was shown running in English and in French. It’s pitched very much as a novelty and in no way did Martin give the impression this was designed to be some sort of educational chatbot.

He seems to be having fun running the project and there’s such a dearth of chatbots out there in general every idea — no matter how primitive or strange — is adding something new to the discourse and allowing us all to learn about this new medium and how different people respond to them. So bring on more comedy science bots I say!

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