In rock climbing, sometimes you simply have to stop climbing, cam your foot into a pod and look down at how far you’ve come. In that brief, quiet moment, you can take stock of what you’ve learned on the rock face so far before you chalk up and plot a path through your next ascent. In the same way, now is a good time to pause and review the exhilarating climb of bot capabilities over the past few years and scope out where they are most likely headed in the years ahead.
The story of bots begins with their ancestors, the friendly robots of the last millennium. The term robot itself is only a century old, invented by a Czech playwright based on the Slavic word “robota,” which means “slave labor.” Considering its origin adds an extra layer of irony to all the recent talk about the arrival of our “robot overlords.”
Robots are meant to serve humanity (hopefully not literally) by eliminating tedious, dangerous or exhausting workloads. In that way, robots can be seen as the heirs of the first Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, when metallic machinery and steam power replaced animal power for the most taxing physical labors.
This indescribably massive break from the past reshaped the world into a network of manufacturing centers inside rapidly expanding cities. That expansion has never ceased. Next came specialized machines for assembly lines in the 19th century, followed by computers, the internet and the containerization of logistics in the 20th century.
We are now in the midst of a fourth Industrial Revolution in the 21st century, propelled at rocket speeds by a new generation of robots and bots, which are really the streamlined, online, AI and emerging technology equivalents of their clunky, anthropomorphic cousins from last century.
Although Eliza in the 1960s has been credited as the earliest chatbot, bots as we know them today truly emerged along with the birth of the web in the early 1990s, including Google's proto-bot search algorithms.
Bots have already taken over in some ways. In early 2015, the top bot-based messaging apps (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and Viber) surpassed the big four social networking apps (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn) in global active monthly users:
Here’s a quick overview of where bots stand in 2018:
Any doubt about chatbots has clearly been squashed, as companies that have not yet embraced more innovative technology are feeling the pressure to integrate to improve efficiency and profitability.
Chatbots for customers get a great deal of coverage, but bots in general are also redefining industries like:
The prime example of that is the developing story of how bots controlled by malicious agents have shaped the national dialog in a number of ways, changing our collective understanding of what truth means in a world of crumbling authorities.
PwC UK projected the future of bots is arriving in three waves:
Like electricity and then the internet, bots are likely to disappear from our conscious awareness in the years ahead as they integrate themselves into everything we touch and everywhere we go, both in cyberspace and in the real world. We won't really notice them anymore because they will function as extensions of ourselves.
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