Innovation

AI chatbots are overhyped and unimpressive, say developers

AI needs to get a lot better before chatbots can hit their potential, and a recent VisionMobile survey shows that developers aren't buying into the hype.

Remember when AI-driven chatbots promised to be THE NEXT BIG THING? Yes, that was last week. And, yes, the hype has already subsided into an impotent whimper.

At least, that's what new developer data from VisionMobile reveals.

We may, as investor Fred Wilson feels, be in the "figuring it out" phase of the chatbot revolution. That is, we might be in the midst of the angsty time "when interesting stuff starts to happen." Maybe. Or it could be that chatbots, like other breathlessly-overhyped technology phases before them, are merely a whisper of much more potent areas of AI to come.

Overhyped and underwhelming

If anyone should be hyping the power of bots, it's Facebook Messenger executive David Marcus. But, at the recent TechCrunch Disrupt event, Marcus went the opposite direction, declaring that bots "got really overhyped really, really quickly." The problem, he went on, is that the bots (now 30,000 strong on the Facebook platform) aren't very useful, and certainly not as useful as the native apps they promise to replace.

SEE: Satya Nadella: Software bots will be as big as mobile apps (TechRepublic)

And this won't change anytime soon.

Chatbots require a number of hurdles to be overcome (UI, UX, and more), with AI potentially stepping in to resolve these issues. However, AI is nowhere near ready, as Alec Pestov posits:

[A]fter hundreds of millions in R&D, Cortana, Google Now, and Siri are still quite inadequate at understanding natural speech. It will take years before machines are capable of understanding human speech to the degree necessary to correctly process the nuances of conversations. The current state of AI and machine learning will inevitably create a bottleneck for chat bot advancement.

Developers, relatively immune to marketing hype, seem to understand all this.

Developers know the chatbot truth

After all, according to VisionMobile's survey of nearly 8,500 developers, most developers are aware of chatbots, yet remain unimpressed. In fact, just 14% remain blissfully ignorant of the chatbot hype. The remaining 86% are swimming in chatbot hype and, by the looks of it, are ready to abandon it.

SEE: Kore's new bot platform can build the chatbot of your dreams, without making you write the code (TechRepublic)

Additionally, according to the VisionMobile developer survey, a mere 4% of developers are actively building chatbots today. That number jumps to 20% of developers indicating they plan to develop chatbots within the next 12 months. That's a significant number, to be sure, but becomes less so when we realize that fewer than 25% of developers that are aware of chatbots (86%) are convinced that they're worth their time.

To get developers interested, the early chatbot developers, and particularly the biggest ones—Facebook and Microsoft—must demonstrate considerable interest from users. That, in turn, depends upon AI that makes talking with a bot worthwhile for consumers. And, as mentioned before, useful AI will require a heck of a lot more investment and time.

Which leaves us with a chatbot revolution that promises much and continues to underperform. Developers, to their credit, haven't been fooled by the hype.

Also see

fbmessenger.jpg

The Facebook Messenger platform boasts thousands of bots.

Image: James Martin/CNET

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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