If you're old enough to have had an AOL Instant Messenger account, then you may remember Jill020306, a curious teenager who kept getting creepy phone calls she couldn't resist answering. As part of the marketing campaign for the 2006 horror flick When A Stranger Calls, the ad agency Universal McCann built a chatbot that would play the part of Jill Johnson in an AOL Instant Messenger conversation. What's old is new again and today Sequel, "the chatbot platform that enables creators and brands to build conversational personas for entertainment and media," has launched an experience to help market Now You See Me 2. Things have changed, technologically and otherwise, in the past ten years. Sequel's bot focuses on Kik and Facebook Messenger, not AOL.
Besides the platform changing, the bigger question worth answering is, has the technology powering chatbots improved to a point where they might offer something more than a mildly amusing piece of marketing campaign? The first wave of chatbots that rolled out on Facebook Messenger were widely seen as a serious disappointment, but the offering created by Sequel stood out from the pack. In large part that is because it wasn't very open ended. It took the form of a Choose Your Own Adventure, and the bot for Now You See Me does the same. Running on rails keeps the experience from falling flat on its face, but also makes it far less dynamic and interesting.
"Build personas, not bots."
For Sequel, the more complex tech, powered by adaptive AI and natural language processing, will roll out slowly. Right now, it wants to focus on executing well in the most valuable real estate on a consumer's smartphone, their messages. "There’s a reason why GUIs emerged as superior interfaces to DOS command line access," said Omar Siddiqui, CEO of Sequel. "And so our philosophy is, build personas, not bots."
Siddiqui and some of his co-founders cut their teeth on storytelling while building games, the best known of which was called Gardens Of Time, a sort of interactive soap opera that became the number one game on the social network in 2011. "We needed to figure out both how to build really compelling interactive stories for consumers," says Siddiqui, "but then also just logistically how do you build a platform that allows creatives to build and iterate and manage." The tech that the team built for its own use provided the perfect launchpad for creating a system that would allow brands and media outlets to easily build their own chatbots.
Without rails, things can go sideways quickly
"I think there's this dream that 'Oh my gosh, things will self-write themselves and self-generate content.' That’s a dream that may come true one day," says Siddiqui. But he doesn't think it's ready for primetime now. "You see the risks of some of this with some of the stuff that’s gone awry on Twitter with Microsoft and stuff like that when you do it without rails or when things can go sideways," he says. Bad bots are everywhere.
Sequel has started with the scripted approach and is carefully adding more AI driven aspects where they make sense for us. "All our bots have agency," says Siddiqui. "What we’re working on now is being able to anticipate things that people might just want to initiate... and those are the things that we then can generatively anticipate and provide some chit-chat and chatter around."
Anyone can head over to OnSequel.com today and create a free account that allows them to start building their own bot. Right now you can create a simple scripted bot with a tree of responses. In the future, Sequel hopes its AI will also be used to help the bot learn where it might need to add more in-depth scripted content, how to gently push people back to subject material it can handle more robustly, or when to bring a human helper into the conversation. And if you're looking for a bot that can be your avatar online, Sequel is also aiming to build a system that can ingest your social media posts or other online writing, giving it a base for parroting your natural style.