Top of the Bots: Who Can You Chat to in Facebook Messenger, Skype and Kik?

Alex Spencer

Maybe you've noticed, but there's been an influx of interest in bots in the past few weeks. It all started with the disastrous launch of Microsoft's Twitter bot 'Tay', but the tech world wasn't deterred and we've seen chatbots launching in Skype, Kik and, most recently, Facebook Messenger.

We spoke to some of the bots which have launched so far, and picked out five of the best (or at least most interesting) that we encountered below.


What's it on? Facebook Messenger

If you get over-excited at the name, and start imagining some futuristic Her-style AI on the other end, you're likely to be disappointed by your first experiences with bots. CNN's bot is a good example of what they're actually capable of. It's essentially a glorified search engine, serving up to three stories at a time based on what you type.

You can enter a particular search term or just ask for the top stories, then tap through to read the story of your choice on the web (not, disappointingly, on Facebook's Instant Articles or somehow within the bot window). It's also possible to see stories based on your previous reading – though I'm not sure how this algorithm works, given that based on my questions about Donald Trump the bot decided that I was really interested in NFL stories.



What's it on? Kik

One of the first retail brands to jump on the bot bandwagon, H&M looks likely to set the template for those that follow. After asking a few basic questions to establish what kind of style clothes you might be interested in – selecting your gender, a preferred outfit from a selection of photos and a short description of your style – it asks for a piece of clothing and then shows an outfit of four items built around it, complete with a combined price.

Rather than typed commands, this all relies on pre-scripted buttons. That might not fit the imagined promise of trading fashion tips with an AI, but it's a smart choice that cuts down on touchscreen typing and guides you through the process clearly. If you like any of the items it suggests, you can select 'shop' at the end of the process – or tap the relevant picture at any point along it – to be taken to its listing page online.


Shop SpringShop Spring

What's it on? Facebook Messenger

Retail app Shop Spring has gone a slightly different way with its bot offering, narrowing down items in a way that's closer to a mobile web shopping experience.

It filters you through a process, asking whether you're looking for men's or women's, then what kind of items, then sub-categories, then price range, before serving up a small selection of items fitting that description.

It's efficient, if not especially novel, but Shop Spring also adds the ability to ask a question about your chosen item. This points towards the potential of bots in the future, dealing with more granular requests – but as it stands, the bot doesn't seem to be able to answer basic questions. A question about the waistband of a pair of shorts led to an apologetic response that 'it does not look like we carry waistbands'.



What's it on? Skype

Skype has by far the least intuitive process for adding bots we've seen so far. It failed to integrate them into the regular list of contacts, displayed long strings of numbers and letters instead of a friendly username (so that 'Summarize' became the rather less catchy '28:deac2ccb-5a43-4d59-82fb-f75d1cc95ec0') and in some cases sent out contact requests that went unanswered.

For this reason, we weren't able to try out the interesting-sounding Murphy Bot (named, we can only presume, after our own illustrious editor) which promises 'images that illustrate your what if questions'. Instead, we sampled the range of Bing bots, including Summarize, which promises to condense the content of any URL you give it into a brief bullet-pointed synopsis. It's a great idea, though currently the algorithm appears to just grab the first, second and final paragraph of whatever you feed it.


Detective KeesDetective Kees: Probable Cause

What's it on? Facebook Messenger

One of the most common early uses for chatbots is as a way of telling stories. Detective Kees is one of the better examples we've sampled, serving up text and images to serve up a whodunnit plot. As one of the two detectives on a murder case, you make occasional choices to guide the story. It's essentially a basic version of the 'interactive fiction' and text adventure games which have been around since the dawn of PC gaming.

It's not fantastically well-written or original, but there's something compelling about seeing these messages landing in your inbox. Probably the most effective feature of Detective Kees is the timing of messages. As with a real Messenger conversation, there are pauses between each message. This seems to be more of a technical necessity than an artistic choice, but there's a potential to do something really interesting with it as a storytelling tool.



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