At Facebook’s annual developer conference last year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his company’s grand vision for the future of its Messenger communications platform: chat bots.
“We think that you should just be able to message a business in the same way that you message a friend,” he told a packed room of developers. “And you shouldn’t have to install a new app.”
Fast forward one year later, and chat bots — automated software that responds to users’ queries and carries out simple tasks — have completely failed to take over the world.
Early Messenger bots were plagued with bugs, and most of them still don’t have the ability to maintain a basic conversation. Even Facebook’s head of Messenger, David Marcus, admitted at a tech conference last September that bots were “overhyped.”
Hoping to have learned from some of its early mistakes developing bots, Facebook is attempting to revive bots with a slew of updates to Messenger announced at its developer conference on Tuesday.
Facebook’s new vision for chat bots is no longer focused on direct, human-to-bot conversations. Instead, Facebook wants bots to lurk in the background of the conversations real people are having on Messenger, piping up only when the bot can be of assistance (such as playing a song or booking a restaurant reservation).
There’s also a new discovery tab for finding businesses that can be directly contacted on Messenger, along with another tab dedicated to playing lightweight games in the app.
“Our goal was never to put bots out there and just have bots,” Messenger’s head of product, Stan Chudnovsky, told Business Insider during a recent interview. “There was some sort of miss in communication, where we spent a lot of time talking to everybody about all of the things we are doing, but we haven’t spent much time talking about why we are doing that.”
Facebook is pushing bots is because it believes bots are the best way for people to communicate with businesses, or to combine “the white pages and yellow pages,” as Chudnovsky put it.
Learning from M to make smarter bots
Chat bots were originally seen not only as a way for Facebook to monetize Messenger, but a meaningful step towards the more powerful, artificially-intelligent assistants being worked on by Amazon, Apple, and other tech giants.
“The bots that succeed will be the ones that establish an emotional connection with the user,” Sam Mandel, the creator of an early Messenger weather bot called Poncho that Facebook demoed onstage last year, told Business Insider at the time.
Over the past year, Facebook has been quietly testing its own AI assistant, dubbed M, inside Messenger. For a handful of beta testers in California, M can complete tasks like “book me dinner for two tonight at a nice Italian place” or “find me the cheapest flight to Norway.” The catch is that M still relies on humans. The app uses a mix of Facebook employees and artificial intelligence to complete tasks.
Facebook recently gave M some new smarts, allowing the bot to volunteer to help users with basic tasks, such as sending a payment or sharing a person’s location based on their latest Messenger conversations. But that’s just the beginning, according to Chudnovsky.
“Think of it has a big AI layer that we are starting to plug in,” he said. “All the data we have has been training it.”
For now, Facebook’s AI brain is relatively restrained in the kinds of suggestions it can make, but Chudnovsky said the goal is to eventually make a fully-fledged, 100% AI-powered M assistant available to Messenger’s 1.2 billion users. Facebook wants its AI to make other bots smarter too: Messenger is already testing a chat extension with Delivery.com that can automatically insert itself into conversations and ask if someone wants to have pizza delivered, for example.
Still no meaningful revenue in sight
Even if Facebook is able to make bots appealing and more discoverable with Tuesday’s updates, Messenger has yet to find a meaningful way to monetize its vast user base.
Facebook isn’t charging businesses to create or host their bots in Messenger, and it doesn’t plan to take a cut of digital payments in the app either.
For now, Messenger appears to be sticking to what Facebook knows best: ads. The app recently started testing News Feed-like ads in a couple of countries, and it could start showing video ads in its Story-like Snapchat clone, Messenger Day. Simple games like pool and chess are increasingly popular in Messenger — 1.5 billion game sessions have been played in Messenger over just the last 90 days, a Facebook spokesperson said.
Facebook could one day charge businesses for payments made through bots or just ramp up advertising in Messenger, but for now, the company is hoping that bots will survive a second time in the limelight.