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Here’s 6 helpful chatbots that prove conversation machines can do more than just talk

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Even a decade ago, talking to your computer was probably a sign that you’d been working too hard and could do with a lie down. Today, no such stigma applies. That’s because chatbots — the conversational agents capable of simulating intelligent conversations with human users — have made some massive leaps forward.

From changing the way kids learn in schools to picking you out the perfect meal this evening, here are the seven of the most interesting chatbots doing the rounds at the moment.

Changing how kids learn

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From MOOCs (Massive open online courses) to the use of iPads in schools, there’s no doubt that technology is changing the way that we learn.

Chatbots could have a similar effect, too — by offering a means by which children can better interact with the subjects they’re studying. That was the conclusion reached by UK-based tech company +rehabstudio. During a recent hackathon event, they came up with the idea of creating an “edubot” that would enable kids to ask questions to a tyrannosaurus rex (called Tina) using Facebook Messenger. The finished product was a collaboration between +rehabstudio (providing the tech) and National Geographic Kids (providing the data.)

“The biggest challenge was training,” CC Clark, head of marketing for +rehabstudio, told Digital Trends. “Tina can answer many different questions, all of which relate to herself such as habitat, diet and so on, and each of those can be expressed in many different ways — especially where kids are involved. The bulk of our work was in of user-testing, feedback, and scripting appropriate responses.”

Still, when the results work it’s more than worth it. “It’s not always easy to get kids to engage with something educational, but getting to chat to a seemingly-real life, walking, talking, bone-crunching dinosaur?” Gemma Chandler, Digital Editor at NG Kids, told Digital Trends. “That ought to get their attention!”

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Making politics more accessible

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In their current state, most people probably wouldn’t expect to have a conversation with a chatbot about politics. However, that’s exactly what’s been happening in India where an estimated 36 per cent of the country’s 884 million-person rural population is unable to read or write.

To help promote political engagement during elections, the startup Voxta created a chatbot with speech recognition capabilities in four different languages — allowing users to ask questions in their own language and access recorded answers about political parties’ policies and views. Tools like this are still in their infancy, but they offer a glimpse at how chatbots could help promote political engagement in the years to come.

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Giving us someone to confide in

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Fancy a therapeutic chat with a chatbot? We might be a long way away from the world demonstrated in Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her, in which a lonely middle-aged man develops a relationship with his Scarlett Johansson-voiced virtual assistant, Samantha. However, that doesn’t mean that chatbots aren’t starting to explore this particular sphere of human relationships.

In China millions of smartphone users frequently spend hours interacting with Xiaoice, a Microsoft-created chatbot which exchanges text messages with its users. Xiaoice uses deep learning technology to pair up user queries with human-generated responses mined from the Internet. It can even track real life details about its users, such as who they are dating or what they do for a living, and return to these topics in later conversations – such as asking how a person is coping after losing their job.

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Appealing parking tickets

DoNotPay robotic lawyer UK parking tickets
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Earlier this year, 19-year-old British computer whiz Joshua Browder made waves when he developed a free legal chatbot which proved successful at appealing around $4 million worth of parking tickets.

While the robot lawyer won’t be replacing human lawyers any time soon, it does do impressively well at understanding the appeals process and breaking it down into standardized questions to be answered. Working out details like who was driving a car, or whether signage was confusing or unclear, the robot is capable of generating a properly-worded appeals letter which can then be mailed off to court.

And that’s not all it can do…

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Helping homeless people apply for housing

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Speaking of the DoNotPay robot lawyer, Joshua Browder recently expanded its abilities to also help homeless people in the UK apply for assistance in the form of government housing.

“I’m working with several lawyers and Centrepoint, the largest charity in the UK for homeless youth, to design a free way for those who face eviction and repossession to claim housing from the government,” Bowder told Digital Trends. “It works by asking questions to ensure the person is eligible before taking down specific details. The eligibility questions include whether you’re a UK citizen and whether you’re legally homeless, for example. It will then use all that information to generate a complete housing letter, which can be sent directly to the government.”

The legal document created is even created so as to “maximize [a claimant’s] legal chances” by highlighting the most relevant information. “In the future, I’m also looking to expand it to help Syrian refugees claim asylum in the UK,” Bowder said.

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Diagnosing disease

HealthTap
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When Facebook opened up its Messenger app to third-party developers earlier this year, one of the companies to jump on board was the health-focused HealthTap. The chatbot presented here let users type questions into Messenger and be matched up with responses from real life doctors.

“We’re excited to be the first healthcare company to deliver fast, high-quality information from compassionate doctors directly to people all over the world through the Messenger Platform,” HealthTap CEO Ron Gutman said when it launched.

Paying customers can then seek additional help through live chat, or audio and video appointments. Right now, HealthTap boasts of featuring in excess of 100,000 doctors across 141 specialties.

No, chatbots aren’t going to replace your regular physician any time soon (anyone who thinks complex health problems can be answered using some smart keyword searching or natural language processing doesn’t understand medicine), but they could act as a valuable triage service to point you in the right direction.

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Picking us out a recipe

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Fancy a new way to find tantalizing recipes? Whole Foods has joined the Facebook Messenger party by coming up with a way to turn text or even emoji-based searches (finally, a non-lewd use for that eggplant emoji!) into suggestions. Enter a taco emoji, for instance, and you’ll receive links to recipes featuring tacos.

Given that it’s a Whole Foods innovation, the recipes are unsurprisingly all based around the Whole Foods website — but it makes working out what you’re going to eat for dinner tonight and then buying the ingredients painless and, weirdly, even kind of fun. Best of all is the fact that Whole Food lets you add text to modify recipes in line with any unique dietary requirements you might have.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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