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Facebook tries to make chatting with bots more natural

It’s just another way the social network is pushing you toward its Messenger chat app.

Now you'll see new buttons on Facebook brand pages that lead you to Messenger. 

Facebook has bot fever.

The social network wants to turn its chat app Messenger into a customer service utopia, where people can text with chatbots instead of having to talk to agents on the phone. A chatbot is software that can automatically perform simple tasks for you, such as taking an order or making a reservation.

Now the company wants the bots to multiply. On Thursday, Facebook introduced a few new features aimed at getting more bots on the platform and making them easier for people interact with.

One of the things Facebook is offering is "natural language processing" tools to software developers, which will allow them to make bots smarter. That is, developers without their own artificial intelligence capabilities can just use the built-in tools offered by Facebook. The software can detect a few different things in a person's message, including saying: hello, bye, thanks, the date and time, a location, an amount of money, a phone number and email.

"It's an important evolution," David Marcus, head of Facebook Messenger, said during a press event at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, on Wednesday. "It will enable automation at scale."

Another new feature is the ability for people to go back and forth between interacting with bots and actual human customer service reps. People will also start to see different buttons on Facebook brand pages that will lead them to Messenger, including "Shop now," and "Play now" buttons.

It's all part of Facebook's push make Messenger, with its 1.2 billion users, more than just a place to text with friends, but rather a one-stop shop for almost everything including shopping, food delivery, payments and games.

During Facebook's annual F8 developer conference in April, the company introduced a slew of new features for the app, including a "Discover" tab to help you find new bots and something called "chat extensions" that allows more than one person in a group chat to talk to the same bot.

The focus on Messenger underscores Facebook's big play in local business. And it's not the only big tech company interested in building out in that market. Google has been updating its maps service, which also has more than a billion users, to serve as more of a local directory and not just a tool to help you get to places. Now it has features that tell you in real time how busy a restaurant or bar is and how bad parking will be. You can also book things like fitness classes through maps and search.

Messenger is another big part of the company's business strategy. Facebook began testing ads on the app earlier this year. "I want to see us move a little faster here," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said about making money off of Messenger during the company's second-quarter conference call on Wednesday.

But after Wall Street analysts on the call seemed to get excited about the statement, Zuckerberg and Facebook brass walked back the comments. They clarified that making money from Messenger is still in its infancy and that the company would take its time with that. 

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