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20 questions about bots I don't know the answer to

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And neither does anybody else, I think

Say you want to talk to a bot. It's a reasonable thing to want. You've heard they're cool and even though a lot of the early ones haven't been that good, you want to give it a shot. Cool. But in, say, six months to a year, I suspect things are going to be complicated, confusing, and weird. In fact, we just wrote a very long piece about the very issue that explains a lot of what’s going on here - go read it!

But now, I still have questions about what it's actually going to be like to live with and use all these bots and intelligent assistants. I don’t know the answer to any of them, and I don’t think anybody else does, either.

1: How should you talk to the bot? Should you use Facebook Messenger? Skype? iMessage?

2: Will which bots you use be completely dependent on the platforms you've chosen to use, just like which apps you have access to is largely driven by what kind of phone you have? Or will it be a little more open, like the web?

3: Right now, bots in my home like Alexa work slightly differently than the bots on my computer, my phone, my wrist, and my car — to say nothing of how they all work differently from each other. Will they eventually all work the same?

4: Is it better to type or speak to a bot?

5: Should you pick an intermediary that's (presumably) better at natural language recognition than these bots and talk to Google or Cortana or Siri? That's how Microsoft, Google, and Apple describe how things will go. (Though with Apple, Siri works with apps, not bots, and more I have questions about that later!) You talk to their intelligent assistants, they talk to the bots for you. But you can also talk directly to bots. Which do you choose and when?

6: Assuming you opt for Siri or Alexa or whatever, will those intermediaries even be able to talk to the bot you want?

7: If I’m talking to an intermediary in most cases, does it make sense for bot makers to invest in figuring out how to understand natural language and maintain context throughout a conversation? Much larger companies with vastly larger resources are pursuing the exact same thing and they're all basically telling these bot makes not to bother, to just make dumb bots that are little more than glorified APIs. Should they do that? Is that dumb?

8: Should bot makers use Microsoft's bot-making tool set? Facebook's? Apple's app toolset?

9: Do you trust either the bot or the intermediary to keep your data safe and secure?

10: Will there be a centralized "Bot Store" where you can rate and review bots? How will you figure out which ones suck and which ones don't (and, again, which ones work with your ecosystem of choice)?

11: And really, it's past time I asked this: Will this so-called next generation computing revolution fizzle before it can fully invade your chat apps in the first place?

12: Is using a chatbot for customer service really better than using one of the many other vectors most big companies offer you, including apps, websites, complaining on Twitter, and phone support?

13: How many jobs will be lost because of bots? How many will be created?

14: We've heard a lot about the companies making these bots hiring poets and such to help write their language. How long until jokes about English Majors actually being useful become tired?

15: So instead of talking about bots, Apple is talking about apps that can plug into iMessage and Siri. That makes perfect sense for Apple — it plays to its strengths and keeps developers beholden to Apple's vision while simultaneously (theoretically) guaranteeing a certain level of quality inside those bot interfaces. Ok, cool. But! What, exactly, is the line between a bot and an intelligent assistant and an app?

16: And how will you know which one to use at any given time?

17: As this crazy future of bots evolves, will any of these questions even be relevant or will they all seem hopelessly out of context, like asking where the rotary dial is on a touchscreen phone?

18: Does anybody except developers and big tech companies even care about bots? Because, let me tell you, it sure doesn’t look like it to me right now. Are we waiting for an “iPhone moment” or an “App Store moment?”

19: Assuming it ever comes to pass, will bots be as lucrative for developers as apps are (or, you know, were)? Will there be a bot economy?

20: Is it wrong for us to keep talking about the “wave” of bots that are coming?

Ok, I know the answer to that last question. Given all this froth, maybe it's better to think of the "wave" of bots as a tide pool, full of tiny animals struggling to evolve. And when the tide finally rises, we don't yet know what creatures will be swimming in that sea, nor what they will look like.

My hunch (and it's mostly just a hunch) is that a lot of them are going to look like the little fish that they are: ready — eager even — to be gobbled up by bigger fish.