Facebook launches Messenger platform with chatbots

Facebook will now allow businesses to deliver automated customer support, ecommerce guidance, content, and interactive experiences through chatbots. By providing utility through its huge developer and business ecosystem, Facebook could boost loyalty with Messenger, one-up SMS, and keep up chat competitors like Kik, Line and Telegram that have their own bot platforms.

This confirms TechCrunch’s scoops from February that Facebook was working with chatbot developers, and last week that a program for automated agents would launch at F8. [Update: the official name for the platform is “bots on Messenger”, not “agents on Messenger”, which was a previous codename]

Facebook announced a slew of chatbot partnerships with developers who got early access, like 1-800 Flowers, so you can order flowers by just sending its Messenger bot a friend’s name. Or CNN could send you a “daily digest” of stories that match your interests, and skip the topics you don’t care about.

Zuckerberg explained that with AI and natural language processing combined with human help, people will be able to talk to Messenger bots just like they talk to friends.

How Messenger Bots Work

Through the Messenger Platform’s new Send/Receive API, bots can send more than just text. They will be able to respond with structured messages that include images, links, and call to action buttons. These could let users make a restaurant reservation, review an ecommerce order, and more. You can swipe through product carousels, and pop out to the web to pay for a purchase.

Importantly, Facebook’s Messenger Platform currently doesn’t allow payments directly through a credit card added to Messenger.

A new persistent search bar at the top of Messenger will help people discover bots. For companies already connecting with customers over SMS, a phone number matching tool will let them easily shift those conversations to people’s Messenger account instead, thanks to a partnership with Twilio. To keep people on control, a block button appears at the top of every bot conversation so you can easily silence them.

Developers will be able to build their own bots or work with Facebook’s bot-building partners. But Facebook also has its own Bot Engine built on its acquisition of natural language interface startup Wit.ai. Based on the same system Facebook uses to teach its own artificial intelligence M, developers can feed the Bot Engine sample conversations, and it will learn how to handle similar conversations on its own.

Making Humans Obsolete

Chatbots have suddenly become the biggest thing in tech. They unlock the ability to provide personalized, interactive communication akin to talking to a human customer service or sales rep, but at scale for much cheaper than call centers.

Facebook CNN ChatbotA conservative estimate is that chatbots could replace 1-800 numbers, offering more comfortable customer support experiences without the hassle of synchronous phone conversations, hold times, and annoying phone trees.

But if bots on Messenger and other chatbot platforms thrive, they could redefine how businesses sell products and services. Instead wandering around an app, a chatbot could ask your criteria and surface relevant things to buy. Rather than sifting through tons of content on a news site, a chatbot could learn what you like a deliver personal digests and suggestions.

Currently, Facebook has been keeping its acquisition WhatsApp as a cleaner messaging experience while experimenting with content and commerce on its own chat app. But if bots on Messenger succeed, Facebook could potentially allow chatbots on WhatsApp, which currently shuts them down.

Facebook sure isn’t the only chatbot game in town, but because of Messenger’s 900 million user reach, its vast connections with advertisers, and a healthy developer ecosystem built over years, it might provide the most attractive platform on which to run them. Businesses focus where the biggest number of customers are, and it doesn’t get bigger Facebook.

By Josh Constine / techcrunch.com

Zuckerberg lashes out at 'fearful,' spotlights AI, chatbots

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Tuesday the company's new Messenger Platform for developers to build chatbots.

Speaking from the company's annual F8 global developer conference, Zuckerberg laid out his vision for the future of the company, criticizing "fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as others."

"If the world starts to turn inwards then our community will have to work even harder to bring people together," he said, extolling the virtues of "hope" and "optimism."

"It takes courage to choose hope over fear," he added.

As for building a global digital community, Zuckerberg revealed Facebook's connectivity initiatives including a solar-paneled plane that will beam down internet.

The future will also heavily feature Facebook's artificial intelligence programs, Zuckerberg said. And while the company already uses AI for photo recognition and more, the Facebook CEO said the platform will be able to achieve greater understanding of the meaning of user content.

The last element of Zuckerberg's vision for the future was virtual and augmented reality, and he highlighted the company's achievements with the Oculus technology, including the milestone of more than 2 million hours of watched video with Gear VR devices.

On the augmented reality front, Zuckerberg said is company is working toward "what looks like normal-looking glasses" that can overlay digital visual elements on top of the real world.
Perhaps the most hotly anticipated Facebook innovation is its work on chatbots interactive, responsive messaging programs. Reports had indicated Zuckerberg's company plans to roll out ways for users to communicate with automated representatives for brands and businesses within Facebook's platforms.

If successful, Facebook could effectively leapfrog the app economy, and create its own thriving digital ecosystem.

Zuckerberg's Tuesday announcement for Messenger Platform is a beta-stage developer tool powered by artificial intelligence. It will allow programmers to build "natural-language services to communicate directly with people," he explained.

"I've never met anyone who likes calling a business, and no one wants to have to install a new app for every service or business they want to interact with," Zuckerberg explained.

"What they're doing is building the next platform with messenger," Youssef Squali, Cantor Fitzgerald global head of internet and media research, told CNBC's "Squawk Alley."The next platform that I think will be at scale at taking messenger and building it into the next portal will allow people not to just communicate among each other, but allow them to communicate with businesses, and, probably as importantly, allow them to stay within that platform to do a whole host of things which now you have to go out and you have to use particular applications for."

Analysts will be looking beyond the technological innovations to the business implications for chatbots and other business messaging features.

"I'm expecting a lot of exciting product announcements today out of messenger that gives you a clear indication of how they plan to monetize the platform and utilize it over the next several years," Victor Anthony, Axiom Capital Management internet media analyst, told CNBC's "Squawk Alley."

By Everett Rosenfeld / cnbc.com