Woman in Yellow Shirt Blowing a Gold Star Glitter
Chatbots are everywhere this year, including the digital workplace. PHOTO: Pexels

2017 may finally be the year you get that personal assistant you deserve — you know, the one who will pick the perfect time and place for your next product pitch, manage your budgets or make sure you know barbacoa tacos are hot in New York but carne asada burritos are preferred in San Francisco.

Just don't expect a human to walk through the office door.

The Year of the Bot

Every consultant and research firm, including McKinsey, Gartner, Forrester and Constellation Research, predict this will be the year of bots, specifically chatbots. Just so we're all on the same page, a bot (short for "robot") is an automated program that runs over the internet.

Chatbots simulate conversation, ideally making it feel like you’re chatting back and forth as you would with a human. Chatbots are powered by a rules engine or artificial intelligence and simulate conversation with audio, text or both.

Chatbots have been around since online chatrooms gained popularity in the 1990s. They made their way into various programs, including Microsoft Office.

Screenshot of Clippy the Office Executive asking if the user needs help with writing a letter.
Screenshot of Microsoft Clippy, asking if the user needs help with writing a letter.PHOTO: Wikipedia

Remember Clippit — aka "Clippy" — the infamous, annoying, widely detested animated paperclip Microsoft subjected its users to endure from 1996 through 2007? Introduced in Office 97 and removed altogether in Office 2007 and Office 2008 for Mac, it would do useless things like interrupt you and say "It looks like you're writing a letter" as soon as you typed the word "Dear" at the beginning of a document.

The Dawn of AI-Powered Bots

Bots have come a long way since then. This time around they're powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and (hopefully) less intrusive and potentially more helpful. They are supposed to be able to gather information in your behalf, glean insight from that information and maybe even take action so you don't have to.

Retailers are turning to chatbots to help create emotional engagement between their brands and their consumers. Marketers are trying to figure out how chatbots will affect their current marketing strategy, if a chatbot needs to be a part of it and how chatbots will help the consumer’s experience with your brand.

At CES, the just concluded global consumer electronics and consumer technology tradeshow in Las Vegas, bots were ubiquitous. As CNET writer noted,
"CES 2017 will always be remembered as the show where we met our future robot overlords — and were foolishly disarmed by how darn cute they were."

Slack, Office 365, Skype

Slack, the popular team communication application, has made a huge investment in sophisticated bots. The company lists nearly 200 bots in its directory, which do everything from keeping track of your coworkers birthdays to pairing you and a different coworker for coffee each week.

Last week the Slack Fund, an $80 million investment fund backed by venture capital firms like Index Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz, announced investments in 11 new bot-builders including Troops, which helps bring Salesforce data into Slack, and Demisto, which alerts teams if a malicious URL or file has been shared or uploaded in Slack.

Microsoft Teams, a Slack competitor still in preview, has potentially powerful bots of its own, especially for companies that use Office 365. There is the WhoBot, for instance, which sits on top of the Microsoft Graph and answers questions about people. It can help you find subject matter experts among your colleagues, show you relationships within the organization and so on.

Like Slack, Microsoft Teams also has third parties building apps for it. At the Teams launch we saw Polly, which Microsoft said can help users create polls, run lunch orders, survey team culture and even help managers figure out whether the team members they manage are happy.

Skype offers bots like virtual assistant Assistant @ Zoom.ai, which can schedule meetings, get you prepared for meetings, get you warm introductions to people you want to meet and find travel to and from meetings, Summarize, which summarizes web pages so that you don't have to read the whole thing, and Sift Bot, which can understand your natural language queries and respond quickly.

Expect to see a lot more Microsoft-friendly bots this year and beyond. Its bot framework is in preview. Microsoft told CMSWire more than 67,000 developers are using the service to build, connect, manage and publish intelligent bots that interact naturally wherever your users are talking — from text/SMS to Skype, Microsoft Teams, Facebook Messenger, Slack, Kik, Office 365 mail and other popular services.

HipChat, Google, Facebook

Altassian HipChat has its own bots. There is Transbot, which as you might guess, translates from one language to another, Analytics Bot, which helps you to connect with Google Analytics, and about 20 others. Altassian also has a substantial developers program.

Google offers Google Assistant, and G Suite has tools that accomplish some of the same things bots do on other platforms. But perhaps more importantly, they have launched bot-building tools on API.AI, Google's conversational user experience platform.

Facebook, meanwhile, claims bots for Workplace by Facebook can be developed using its developers platform in just ten minutes.

Early Days for AI Bots

These are still early days for AI-powered bots. Even so, the personal assistant that we all want at our beck and call may be coming to fruition.

Microsoft customers will soon be able to copy digital assistant Cortana on emails, and she will be able to take action based on the content of those messages. Take an email between four people that ends in "meet again in a few weeks for a few hours and then grab some dinner afterwards." Cortana should be able to arrange and confirm the place and time. This capability is available via Calendar.help, which is now in limited preview.