Recently, I asked a digital cat about the weather. It didn't go so well.
"Hi Poncho" is one of Facebook's first chatbots. What's a chatbot, you ask? They're computer programs that live inside instant-messaging services like Facebook Messenger, Kik, Telegram, and Skype that help you shop and answer questions. You talk to them. You ask them things. They respond.
Most of the time, they have no freaking clue what you're talking about.
It's not like chatbots are a bad idea. They can actually be really cool. Just take a look at the YouTube bot on Telegram -- Telegram is a rival instant messaging app -- which can let anyone easily share one of their favorite viral videos while chatting with friends or relatives. Even this dumb CNN bot (see image) was still smart enough to send me a reminder about the Clinton/Sanders debate yesterday evening.
The problem is that Facebook's bots (unlike those on Kik, Telegram, etc.) are masquerading as something they are not. None of Facebook's current bots are artificially intelligent. They just have a small number of preprogrammed responses.
Believe it or not, today's technology could actually let you have a conversation with a computer program -- not just kick your ass at games like Chess and Go. Microsoft's Tay chatbot is just the most recent to show the promise of having a reasonably intelligent discussion with an AI-infused bot -- right up until the part where pranksters tricked it into spewing drug-addled, Hitler-loving nonsense.
But that's not what most chatbots do. The ones you'll find inside your instant messenger aren't AI, they're just simple tools. They're just miniature apps where you might be able to use plain English like "Show me men's clothing" or "What's the weather like today?" instead of pressing a button with your finger.
As long as the bot is smart enough to realize that the words "weather" and "today" are the ones that actually matter.
Sadly, most of these early chatbots aren't even that smart. Their developers give you the buttons to press with your finger, too, because fingers are often better. If you try to actually talk to most of today's bots, they'll totally ignore you. (Unless they've actually got a human behind the scenes: Shop Spring seems to be cheating at this whole robot thing.)
I can't really blame Poncho or CNN for being such crappy bots. It's not their fault that they don't actually have artificial intelligence behind the wheel.
Also, I really don't want to alienate our future robot overlords when they inevitably read this story.
Disclosure: Sean Hollister's wife works for Facebook as a business-to-business video project manager.