The bots have landed
Seemingly overnight, web robots, programed to parse data and automate simple tasks in response to natural language, have started to infiltrate our digital lives. Once a curiosity on AIM and MSN Messenger, bots have progressed in the last decade from simply playing games and answering silly questions to big business. Indeed, bots are jockeying to fulfill our every whim, from helping with purchasing decisions, to providing transit directions and airline check-ins, to serving up news that matches our interests.
Their rise coincides with the rise of messaging platforms, where behemoths Facebook and Microsoft see bots playing a major—and they hope, indispensible—role. Smaller players like Kik, Line, and Telegram are also hard at work on bot integration. Slack, meanwhile, is making bots central to the workplace.
Naturally, you're curious to see what all the fuss about. Be warned: While the bot era is definitely upon us, it's still early days, revealing both the potential of these conversational AI helpers as well as their current weaknesses. Here's a look at 10 handy bots you can try today. Notably absent from the list is Microsoft’s infamous Tay bot (pictured), which was taken offline after evolving into a racist bigot shortly after its debut. (None of these bots will sprout Nazi propaganda at you, promise.)
DJ Lazy Set (Twitter)
For those times when you’re having trouble figuring out what to listen to, DJ Lazy Set can help. Tweet an artist name at this bot and it will reply with a Spotify playlist based on that artist. That’s all there is to it. In my tests, Lazy Set was very responsive; however, the bot has run into trouble with Twitter in the past, so you might hit it on a day when its tweets are being blocked. If that’s the case, you can find all of Lazy Set’s playlists on the Spotify web app.
Poncho (Facebook Messenger)
Poncho is a friendly chatbot that can give you a simple recipe for guacamole, offer advice on pizza orders, and refuse to tell you jokes. But its real purpose is to deliver local weather forecasts. Just share your location with Poncho or ask for the weather in a specific place and a few seconds later you'll get the temperature and basic conditions (cloudy, windy, etc.).
Want to know the gist of a webpage without actually sifting through its contents? Microsoft’s Summarize bot to the rescue! This bot will scan the page and do its best to condense the information into a few key points.
Right now, this bot’s effectiveness is a bit questionable, as all it really does is copy and paste the first few sentences from the top paragraphs of an article. Hopefully, over time it will evolve and learn as people use it.
That said, even the basic functionality it has now can help you get through articles quickly if all you need are the highlights.
Bing News Preview (Skype)
Another of Microsoft’s products, Bing News delivers headlines on Skype for whatever subject you’re interested in. Want to know the latest news about ISIS, the U.S. presidential election, or the Detroit Tigers? Just ask Bing News in plain language. There are similar bots like this on other platforms, such as CNN and The Wall Street Journal on Facebook Messenger.
Be warned, however: The Messenger bots will deliver regular updates every day, which can get annoying. Incredibly annoying.
One of the earliest examples of Facebook’s approach to bots, KLM (a bot for KLM Royal Dutch Airline), performs tasks to help with your travel. This service can put all your flight information in one spot, from confirmation of your ticket purchase, to your boarding pass, to up-to-date flight information.
If you don’t fly KLM reguarly, perhaps we’ll see bots from other airlines show up soon.
MailClark beta (Slack)
Slack was supposed to kill email, but until emailageddon finally arrives you can integrate some email chores into Slack with MailClark. This bot can send and receive email, delivering everything from within Slack itself. Each email address is based on the name of your various Slack channels (just a fancy name for chat rooms). If you have a channel called #random, for example, then the email address would be something like random@[slackteamname].mailclark.ai.
MailClark isn’t quite a full-featured email client, but if all you need to do is send and receive email and have it all show up in Slack then the bot does the job fine.
MailClark is currently free during its beta phase. Once it officially rolls out, there will be a tiered service plan, including a free version.
Your MD (Slack and Telegram)
Worried about that headache and neck cramp? Don’t get paranoid by searching for your symptoms on Google—get paranoid by talking to the Your MD bot instead. Billed as your personal health assistant on Slack, Your MD can give you basic medical information based on the symptoms you provide. The bot will even ask you follow-up questions to get a deeper diagnosis. Your MD can also give you basic facts about various diseases and illnesses on request.
As this is a bot, you don’t want to rely exclusively on its diagnoses. That’s what doctors are for. In my brief time with the bot, a muscle knot in my back went from an annoying exercise injury (my diagnosis) to Fibromyalgia (Your MD’s opinion). Hopefully it will get better over time, but even in its current state the bot can be helpful for getting basic information.
If you’re a fan of the Pomodoro Technique for time-management and a Slack user, this free bot is the perfect addition to your workflow. Just add Pomo to your Slack, say “work” to it in a direct message, and a new Pomodoro work session starts (currently a fixed time of 25 minutes). You can also tell the Pomo bot to “rest” for five minute breaks, “drop” to stop the current session, and “time” to see how much time is left in a work or rest session.
Moovit (Facebook Messenger)
Transit-direction specialist Moovit recently created a bot for Messenger that can find transit directions for many cities around the world. Unfortunately, Moovit doesn’t appear to be that flexible. Once you tell it your location (Vancouver, BC, in the example above), it gets stuck on providing you with transit data for that location only—at least in my tests.
Nevertheless, if you need transit directions for your area, Moovit does the job.
Assist (Facebook Messenger, Kik, Slack, SMS, Telegram)
A multi-platform bot, Assist integrates with a bunch of other services to help you get things done, like request a car ride, order food or flowers, get a restaurant reservation, hire a courier, and book tickets. To offer all these services, Assist partners with a number of companies such as CityMapper, OpenTable, Postmates, Seamless, StubHub, and Uber.
Those are some of the highlights of our new bot-erific world, but there are many more to check out. BGR has a list of about 40 bots you can try on Messenger and Slack has its own bot listings, while Skype’s bot platform is still in its early days.
Give some of the bots a try and see if you are willing to live in the upcoming bot-filled world—a place where everything is just a snarky question and dry response away.
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