How Bot That!

Kim BellardAbout a year and a half ago I wrote I Hate Apps, expressing my concerns that apps had outlived their usefulness due to how they are cluttering up our devices, and found I wasn't alone in this attitude.  Now Facebook is doing something about it, with their vision that they can use "bots" within their Messenger app to eliminate the need for many standalone apps.

Indeed, as David Marcus, the head of messaging at Facebook, told Wired: "Everyone wanted websites when the web was launched.  And then everyone wanted apps.  This is the start of a new era."

Let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Not yet.

What is a "bot," anyway?  Here's how Kurt Wagner explained it on re/code:

A bot is software that is designed to automate the kinds of tasks you would usually do on your own, like making a dinner reservation, adding an appointment to your calendar or fetching and displaying information. The increasingly common form of bots, chatbots, simulate conversation. They often live inside messaging apps — or are at least designed to look that way — and it should feel like you’re chatting back and forth as you would with a human.

At its annual F8 developers conference, Facebook just announced that it was opening up Messenger so that other companies could build bots that would use the service to connect with, and hopefully assist, Messenger's users.  They even have a "Bot Engine" to allow bots to be much more powerful, increasing the range of tasks they can assist with.

The funny thing is, despite all the apps most people have downloaded, we typically only use a handful of them regularly.  Facebook wants to make sure it stays one of those.  They figure, why go to another app if Messenger can do the same work for you?

They already have partnerships with some 25 companies, including CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and 1-800-Flowers.  Instead of using those companies' own apps or websites, users can tell the bot what they want using Messenger, maybe even have a conversation with it to ensure it knows what you want.  Then off it goes to help you.

Mr. Marcus told The New York Times, "We're conversational creatures.  That's the way our brain functions.  That's the way we're wired.  As a result, it's probably the most natural interface there is."

That comes as no surprise to, say Amazon, which is building a whole vocal ecosystem around Alexa, or to Microsoft, whose Cortana is voice-activated and whose recent foray into bot -- Tay -- went badly awry (some say needlessly).  .

Other messaging services like WeChat already allow users to buy tickets or play the lottery, while Kik has a "bot store" that services much like an app store.  Facebook doesn't want to follow Kik's example.  As Mr. Marcus told Wired: "It's the wrong way to think about it.  It's not as if you need to go buy something or download something; the interaction is much more seamless."

This is what should have Apple and Google worried, according to Elizabeth Dwoskin of The Washington Post: both companies have made their app stores central parts of their ecosystem, so if bots replace apps, many of their current advantages dissipate.  As one venture capitalist told her, "Everyone who didn’t win the app platform wars will get another chance with bots."

Hello, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft.

Just as I don't want to have to figure out which app is best, download it, and then try to use it, I don't want to have to do the same with bots.  I wouldn't mind, though, telling Messenger or another service what I'm looking for, and letting the bots battle it out about which one can best help me.

I could think of a number of ways bots could help people with their health care, such as bots that can assist with the following kinds of requests:
  • Can you check my calendar and schedule an appointment with Dr. Z?  Mornings are better.
  • Can you find me a primary care doctor within three miles, who is in my insurance network, accepts new patients, and has good consumer ratings?
  • Can you check my claims, find out how much I'm supposed to owe Dr. Y, and issue a payment?
  • I'm afraid I might have high cholesterol.  Can you tell me -- preferably in a video -- what it is, how to find out if I do have it and what I'm supposed to do about it, then find me a good doctor for it?
  • Can you remind me when my next preventive service is, and schedule it?
  • I need to get an MRI -- can you find out which imaging center has the best prices for my insurance plan?
  • My father needs a heart transplant -- can you find out which programs in the country do the most and have the best outcomes?
  • Can you alert me whenever any drug on my med list goes off my health plan's formulary, or changes tiers?  Then tell me what drug I could ask my doctor to switch me to in order to minimize my copay. 
Pretty much all of these are things I could do myself, using the web and/or various apps.  It just could take a long time and be a lot of work.  I'd love to set a bot off the task and let them do the work, presumably a lot faster than I could.
Many health care organizations are patting themselves on their backs just because they have some kind of an app, even though it might be fairly rudimentary.  If they are not careful, they may find themselves once again behind on the technology curve as other industries move more rapidly towards bots.
How Bot That! was authored by Kim Bellard and first published in his blog, From a Different Perspective.... It is reprinted by Open Health News with permission from the author. The original post can be found here.