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Facebook chat bots might be the future, but right now they feel like the past

facebook messenger bots text based interface chat poncho
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Apps are old school. Bots are the future. “Conversational UIs” will replace the web.

That, in a nutshell, is the thinking behind a developer gold rush happening right now. Facebook announced bots for Messenger just three months ago, and already there are 11,000 bots hoping to reach the nearly one billion Facebook Messenger users.

But are these bots worth using right now? Can talking to a script really feel like talking to a person, to the point where it becomes useful? And can such a chat conversation really be easier than just opening a website, or an app, to get something done?

To find out, we tried opening some apps and comparing them to their chat bot counterparts in Facebook Messenger. Here’s what we found.

Poncho gives daily weather updates, but can’t deal with follow up questions

We weren’t sure which bot to start chatting with, and Poncho looked friendly enough. So we started there.

Poncho is a weather app best known for sending chipper daily weather updates over SMS or an iPhone app. If you start chatting with Poncho over Messenger, he’ll helpfully ask where you live, and what time you’d like to get daily one-line weather summaries.

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The updates are simple enough, and easy to read from a notification without every actually opening Messenger. It doesn’t have a lot of detail, which is why you might want to ask a follow-up question. This is where you might get in trouble.

Poncho can only parse a few phrases, and you need to state them exactly. You can get a list of phrases by typing “help,” which is basically the master command for bots at this point. Poncho will give you a quick list of questions he can answer, like “do I need sunglasses?”

These questions all work. But part of conversation is follow-up questions, and that’s where Poncho goes legs-up. You can ask when it’s raining. Just don’t ask when the rain will stop.

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Instead, you should follow the “help” instructions and type “hourly forecast.” Do this, and Poncho will give you hour-by-hour cards you can page through.

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So, Poncho as a bot isn’t really conversational. It’s responsive to a particular set of commands. And if you want to talk to Poncho, you need to memorize what those commands are. Stray too far, and he’ll get confused.

The app’s daily updates are worthwhile. There’s not a lot of detail, but that’s kind of the point. It’s supposed to be simple. But the updates don’t do anything that a standard app couldn’t.

TheScore gives sports updates, and that is all

Many “bots” are actually just alternative notifications systems. Poncho is a decent example of this, but TheScore is even better. This dead-simple bot tells you scores and news stories related to your favorite sports teams. That is it. It knows nothing else. To get started, just type the name of your favorite sports team.

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Whenever this team plays a game, or otherwise makes headlines, you’ll get real-time updates.

It’s straight-forward, and pretty good alternative to installing a dedicated app for real-time notifications. It’s hard to complain about the lack of language processing, because none is offered. We could see notification-only bots like this becoming common if they offer information that’s useful to receive in realtime.

Still, this is a far cry from the conversational user interface that’s touted as the future, and we question if it’s really easier to type a team’s name in Messenger than it is to type it in any other sports or news app.

Surprisingly, you can find a flight with HipMunk

Weather and sports updates are not complicated, which is why there are hundreds (if not thousands) of apps on the market that cover both of these things. But there are relatively few tools for finding flights and hotels. One of them, HipMunk, was quick to jump on the Messenger bot bandwagon.

Does it work? Mostly.

Start chatting with HipMunk and you’ll be told you can ask for travel advice, search flights, or search for hotels. I thought I’d try to find a flight. One problem became immediately obvious — HipMunk is not fast. Getting any results at all usually meant waiting two minutes or so, which is much slower than almost any website. And when the results did come, the bot gave me a bunch of pre-ordained dates to think about.

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You can scroll through these boxes of dates and pick one of potential trip itineraries. Do that, and you’ll be presented with a list of potential flight options.

What if you already know the exact dates you need to be gone? I asked Hipmunk for flights in a specific date range, and got both flight and hotel options as a result.

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I wasn’t expecting this to actually work, and was pleasantly surprised when it did. Score one for the bots.

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To actually purchase tickets, however, you’ll need to leave Messenger. Tap “See flight details” and you’ll be brought to a summary page on Hipmunk’s website. From there, you’ll be directed to the airline’s webpage, where you can actually buy the tickets.

So is this easier to use than the Hipmunk website? If you’re on a desktop computer, not at all. You’re better off just heading to the website. But I could see this being useful on mobile, where there’s not as much room to work with.

1-800-flowers will let you order flowers, if you stick to the script

No small part of the promise of bots, at least for brands, is the idea that people will buy things by talking to them. Facebook made 1-800-Flowers a prominent part of its bot pitch, but how does this service work?

Well, it’s not exactly bot-like. When you start your conversation, the bot will ask you where you’d like to deliver your flowers to. After that, you’ll see a curated selection of flower categories.

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You need to stick to these categories, because there is no conversational ability built into this bot at all. Seriously. Searching for the most mundane thing imaginable will not work.

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Artificial intelligence, this is not. It’s a series of options you can browse with your thumb, that just so happens to come in the form of a chat bot. Unless you want one of the first things offered, expect to tap “more options” more than a few times. Browsing flowers this way can get exhausting.

Once you’ve made a selection, the bot will ask you for a lot of contact information, and even offer to save it for you. Payment is handled outside the bot, on a web page, but basically every other part of the process is handled entirely within Messenger.

Overall, buying flowers with this bot feels slow. Pick a category and you get ten options to scroll through; tap “more options” and you get 10 more. And if you know exactly what you want, there is no easy way to search for it.

This is the most complex thing we tried, and the bot blew it. We’d use the website over this every time, on mobile or otherwise.

Return of the command prompt

Machines struggle to understand human language, which is why, for a long time, learning to use a computer meant learning how to speak the machine’s language. If you wanted to use DOS, you had to know commands like “cd” and “dir.” You also got used to seeing “bad command or file name” several times a day, when you inevitably mis-typed something.

Maybe bots are the future. Right now, however, bots feel like a return to the days of DOS. It’s less “conversational UI” and more “command prompt 2.0.”

Whether you’re checking the weather, ordering some flowers, or booking a flight, these simple scripts can respond to a set number of commands. Stray from the short list of capabilities, however, and you’re out of luck.

It’s the 2016 equivalent of “bad command or file name,” and if you try to use a bot you’ll run into it time and time again. The only way to use these bots reliably is to teach yourself exactly what commands they do and don’t respond to.

Which isn’t to say that bots don’t have potential. But humans shouldn’t have to learn to speak with bots. Bots should learn to speak with humans. Until that happens, apps and websites don’t have a lot to worry about.

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Justin Pot
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Justin's always had a passion for trying out new software, asking questions, and explaining things – tech journalism is the…
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