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Facebook Messenger: Will chatbots spell the end of apps?

Facebook Messenger's new chatbots could replace company apps and over-the-phone communication with artificially intelligent chats on the widely used messaging platform.

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    Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg announced chatbots will be added to Facebook's Messenger app at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference Tuesday, April 12, 2016, in San Francisco.
    Eric Risberg/AP
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Entrepreneur and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg laid out a 10-year plan for his company at its annual F8 conference in San Francisco, including the announcement that chatbots would be appearing on its new Messenger Platform.

Alongside other futuristic concepts such as solar-powered, Internet-spreading aircraft and improvements to Facebook’s Oculus Rift virtual reality system, Mr. Zuckerberg’s announcement that chatbots would be integrated into the social network’s messaging system is yet another example of the importance of artificial intelligence (AI) in tech products going forward.

Chatbots are essentially AI programs that Facebook will integrate with Messenger to provide consumers with a different way to communicate with businesses. Instead of calling customer support or attempting certain actions themselves, users will be able to talk with chatbots and ask them to complete tasks or resolve issues that may arise.

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"Bots are conversational so they are a natural extension of how we like to communicate and what we like to do," Forrester analyst Julie Ask told Computerworld. "You can chat with the bot, ask the bot to do things for you, like order take-out or get a new lipstick."

NPR reported that Facebook's chatbots will be able to answer questions, personalize newsfeeds, and complete consumer tasks such as reserving a restaurant table or ordering a certain product. Zuckerberg joked that "now, to order from 1-800 FLOWERS, you never have to call 1-800 FLOWERS again."

The AI will be integrated with the Messenger platform which, in addition to the Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging service, is responsible for 60 billion messages sent each day. Zuckerberg also reported that 900 million people communicate via Messenger monthly.

"We are focused on facilitating messages from businesses that provide meaningful value to the people who receive them," a Facebook release on the bots stated. The company post also described how AI messages could include more content than text, including images and "multiple calls-to-action." Facebook said that the bots will be able to interpret text sent to them, improving over time as they "learn" from conversation.

Facebook hopes that chatbots will enhance Messenger and allow for a better consumer-business experience, but some are worried the AI may not be reliable or safe enough to say what companies want them to say without guidance.

"They're a powerful tool but they're also a big risk," Gartner analyst Brian Blau said to Computerworld. "AI can be a very powerful technology. Businesses are going to have to understand how to harness that power. There are reasons to be worried about it. Because we're giving chatbots the power to act on our behalf, they're taking on greater importance."

While there is no way of monitoring every action chatbots take with their users, Facebook says it hopes developers will start small and work out simple programs that will end up being of assistance to customers. And the company says it will strive to ensure that chatbots don't just turn into another outlet for spam, but remain helpful for people who choose to use them.

"We want to make sure we have the best ways to enforce violations as they come up," Peter Martinazz, Messenger's director of product management, told Mashable, adding that "a lot of [security] policies" are being implemented around chatbots as they roll out.

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