Computer programs that talk with (and like) humans, chatbots appear as voice-controlled assistants (such as Siri or Cortana) and pop up online as customer service representatives for major retailers. If you’re in Messenger or a number of other messaging platforms, you can connect with bots much as you would with other users. Except the bots aren’t people; they’re brands like H&M or Whole Foods, and they’re there to serve up things like outfit recommendations and recipe ideas, depending on the keywords that you type. They also, crucially, allow retailers, services, and a host of other companies to engage mobile users on the platforms where they’re already spending so much time—especially since users’ appetites for new apps has dwindled. According to a recent comScore report, half of U.S. smartphone owners download zero apps a month.
With the amount of young people around the world who live on messaging apps, Ted Livingston, founder of Kik, is tying the future of his company to chatbots. “It seems like chat is going to be at the base of everything we do in a way that even the internet isn’t,” says Livingston. And others share his outlook. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and their competitors continue to integrate messaging, voice assistance, and AI tech into their offerings.