Nature India | Indigenus

A friend indeed

Chatbots are becoming an extension of human capabilities of search and analysis, as they steadily grow better to perform a variety of tasks on our behalf.

Second runner-up, Nature India Essay Contest 2020

Arijit Goswami

Arijit Goswami

No stretch of time can fade my vivid memory of the fine afternoon when I first saw a computer before my eyes. Led in a queue by our class teacher into an air-conditioned room (the computers of those times were indeed spoiled brats under heat), I was no less enamored by the glow of the VDU, as I was enticed by the quirks of the friend I had inside the machine. Peeping from corners of application windows, the Microsoft Office Assistant interacted with me just like a real living-breathing friend. A friend that promised to not judge me, nor mock me, but be the personification of ‘a friend in need is friend indeed’.

Nineteen years later, I grieve the loss of that paperclip-shaped friend to oblivion, though I see it reincarnated everywhere across the world, living through smartphones, websites and a myriad of gadgets. Be it Google Assistant, Cortana, Siri or Amazon Alexa, chatbots have come a long way since then. These conversational interfaces are what infuse life into our gadgets, enabling them to interact with us just like any other human being. Leveraging AI and Natural Language Processing, these artificial machines accumulate, dissect, comprehend and respond to information from humans. Over the years, they have matured so well that one can not only resolve queries with these bots, but can also share some light moments with them and also get loads of work done seamlessly. So much so, that now chatbots are becoming an extension of human capabilities of search and analysis, as they steadily grow better to perform a variety of tasks on our behalf.

Today, I wake up to an alarm that I set the previous night, not through clicks on smartphone or by turning knobs behind a clock. I simply wish my Alexa ‘good night’ and tell her to set alarms for 7am and also at 8am, lest my slumber gets the better of me. I reach my office and log into my online bank account. Right at the bottom-right sits my friend eager to resolve any of my queries. I simply type in my query into the chat box, and regardless of whether I indulge in extreme politeness or utter rudeness, I am assured of a courteous response and quick resolution of my problems. The chatbot also does a wonderful job of recommending me products and services that are best suited to me. Guess what? I no longer need to get tossed around bank counters for getting my work done, no longer need to ask friends and relatives for best deals and no longer need to be distressed with irrelevant marketing calls as the bot knows what’s best suited for me as per my behavior.

By the end of my tiring day, I am too hungry. 10 years ago, I would have had to scavenge through the streets for restaurants. But no more! My smartphone glows up with a notification from Zomato recommending me deals. I confess to Zomato about my cheat day and make it my accomplice in food guilt. I simply need to type in a few keywords and my payment is automatically done, leading to an awesome conversational selling experience. While I wait for my order to be delivered, I interact with the chatbot. The conversational AI tracks my mood through text analytics and emotion analytics, and responds to me with emoticons and witty messages. And sometimes, out of the blue, I just wonder if it is really a bot or an actual human talking to me behind a veil of a software.

However, chatbots are going to transform this world and how we interact with devices in ways still unimagined. Can you imagine that we may soon have chatbots providing therapy to distressed people? Reports published by National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) say that it is possible to automate the expertise of a therapist. Woebot is an automated conversational agent that uses a short user-friendly survey and adds a fine sense of humor to cheer up its users. Wysa is an AI penguin on smartphone that helps anxious people to improve focus, manage conflict and relax. And though they are still inept at handling nuanced concerns of humans, the day is not too distant that we will confide the emotions from our deepest recesses of mind and seek help of chatbots that will be the best ears to listen to us.

How would you react if someone told you that chatbots are helping refugees in rehabilitation? Syrian refugees in Lebanon are using a chatbot, Mona, to flag their cases to non-profits that help them connect to lawyers, doctors and authorities of host nations for resettlement. DoNotPay, a robot lawyer gives free legal aid to refugees seeking asylum in Canada, UK and US, through a seamlessly easy to use conversational interface. With Lucia, MarHub and even WhatsApp being leveraged by NGOs, non-profits, and even the United Nations, for refugee rehabilitation, the humanitarian future of chatbots looks bright.

Not to forget, that chatbots will soon become our virtual assistants in all matters of life, from handling our daily chores to keeping our fitness on track and being our omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent secretary for life.

I can very well visualize the day when chatbots will grow quite mature in the way they handle not only our written text, but also our emotions, location and circumstances to proactively provide contextually-sensitive services. The day is not far when future generations of chatbots will be our closest friends, mentors and confidants. And maybe one day, I will wake up and stare at my tablet where the great grandchild of Office Assistant will peek from the corner of screen, wish me a pleasant morning, and provide me with updates of all household chores it has automatically completed on my behalf to make my life more blissful than ever.

[ Arijit Goswami is a manager at Capgemini India in Mumbai.]

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