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‘Chatbots’ may be next big thing for consumers

Brandon Bailey
Associated Press

San Francisco – — The robots are coming — to help run your life or sell you stuff — at an online texting service near you.

In coming months, users of Facebook’s Messenger app, Microsoft’s Skype and Canada’s Kik can expect to find new automated assistants offering information and services at a variety of businesses. These messaging “chatbots” are basically software that can conduct human-like conversation and do simple jobs once reserved for people. Google and other companies are reportedly working on similar ideas.

In Asia, software butlers are already part of the landscape. When Washington, D.C., attorney Samantha Guo visited China recently, the 32-year-old said she was amazed at how extensively her friends used bots and similar technology on the texting service WeChat to pay for meals, order movie tickets and even send each other gifts.

“It was mind-blowing,” Guo said. U.S. services lag way behind, she added.

Online messaging has become routine for most people, offering more immediacy than email or voice calls, said Michael Wolf, a media and technology consultant. Messaging services are now growing faster than traditional online social platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, according to research by Wolf’s firm, Activate.

And experts say messaging bots can handle a wider range of tasks than apps offered by retailers and other consumer businesses. In part, that’s because bots can recognize a variety of spoken or typed phrases, where apps force users to choose from options on a drop-down menu.

“Bots are the new apps,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said last month. Microsoft has just created new programming tools for businesses to build bots that will interact with customers on Skype, the Microsoft-owned Internet voice, video and messaging service.

Facebook is widely expected to unveil similar tools for its Messenger chat service at the company’s annual software conference starting Tuesday.