Save Us From Chat Bots -- Digital's Wizard Of Oz

Anyone else think of the Wizard of Oz when they look at chat bots? I have no doubt that one day in the future these "bots" could be a permanent fixture and may well prove of use, but right now, I'm not convinced. Anyone ever been convinced it's just another way of typing in a search? They're just effectively a search query box that pretends to have more bells and whistles -- a manifestation of something all-powerful and all-seeing that is actually just a chancer behind a curtain puling levers.

It was with great dismay, then, that I read Mondelez is going to roll out Facebook Messenger chat bots for its well-known brands, which include Cadbury, Oreo and Toblerone. The extra investment in Facebook to get on to consumers' mobile devices without having ads blocked is a smart move; the associated news of chat bots, not so much. Quite apart from the tech, what are people going to want to know? They're available at your confectionary store, they cost whatever's on the price label and if there's a problem there are details on the box about how to seek redress.

Just the other day I had a query withy my bank, HSBC, which led me to fire up the chat bot, or live chat feature, on the Web site while I waited for a human to pick up the phone. Needless to say, the text query to my chat bot assistant just turned up a bunch of links which I had already gone through myself when trying to resolve the issue. Turns out that the only way to get a resolution was speak to a human being, which i did. The chat bot was never in a position to help, and to be honest, it never even came close. 

I've tried this with other sites and the result is always the same -- a bunch of links that I could have received by just typing my query into a search box. So I researched some popular Facebook Messenger chat bots and gave them a go and guess what? They're still just search boxes which pretend to weave digital magic but just offer a link or two to advice or customer service information they've spewed out many times before. HealthTap stood out as a useful service. You ask a question and it tells you what doctors have said in the past to similar queries. Again, though, it's the kind of stuff you can get just by searching.

Our kids, I have no doubt, will one day speak in their phones and a clever assistant will know stuff and provide it for them on a plate, or rather on a screen or some kind, or VR eyewear. As of now, it's just silly. Anyone who's seen Dorothy's brave dog, Toto, unveil the benevolent fraudster knows, it may say chat bot on the label, but it's just a search engine pulling digital's equivalent of levers behind a cloak of smart marketing.

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