You may not have unwrapped a robot on Christmas, but your new year will be filled with artificial intelligence.
Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other technology companies, large and small, are making rapid advancements with virtual personal assistants that can solve problems and even complete tasks.
“We’re going to start to see more personal assistants, and the ones that are already online will get more useful,” said Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner.
The assistants, sometimes referred to as “chatbots,” represent noteworthy advancements to computer programs that simulate conversations. Chatbots are not new — think Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana.
But in 2016, you’ll encounter different, smarter varieties of chatbots, some appearing in your favorite social media applications.
“Chatbots are designed to answer questions, to perform searches, to interact with you in a very simple form, such as jokes or weather,” said Brian Solis, principal analyst with Altimeter Group. “Ultimately, they should be able to anticipate your needs and help you shop.”
These robot helpers are also expected to assume more human-like qualities in 2016, exchanging messages in a conversational style rather than a computer’s mechanical responses.
The human side of chatbots will be most apparent in mobile messaging applications such as Facebook Messenger, where the social network has already begun perfecting its own virtual assistant called “M.” M, first released to a small number of Messenger users in August, can strike up a conversation or crack a joke — but also book travel, make purchases or wait on hold with the cable company when you’re not in the mood.
Powered by both artificial intelligence and actual humans (who help train the digital robots), M is the digital equivalent of a secretary or hotel concierge. The persona was originally code-named “Moneypenny” after the fictional character in James Bond films.
Google is also working to add question-and-answer computer programs inside a messaging app, the Wall Street Journal reported last month. Google is likely motivated by a desire to gain ground in the mobile messaging realm, where rivals such as Facebook are far more dominant. The company also has a financial interest to remain at the forefront of Internet search, a behavior that, on smartphones, has migrated away from the traditional search engine.
Mobile messaging apps, meanwhile, are on the fast track to a billion users, growing so fast that they’re overshadowing social networking as a favorite smartphone activity with youngsters.
“If you look at what the youngest tech generation is doing … it’s more about Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook Messenger than it is with pure-play social networking,” Blau said. “That is where the future is.”