What’s wrong with bots is they’re not ours

In Chatbots were the next big thing: what happened?, Justin Lee (@justinleejw) nicely unpacks how chatbots were overhyped to begin with and continue to fail their Turing tests, especially since humans in nearly all cases would  rather talk to humans than to mechanical substitutes.

There’s also a bigger and more fundamental reason why bots still aren’t a big thing: we don’t have them. If we did, they’d be our robot assistants, going out to shop for us, to get things fixed, or to do whatever.

Why didn’t we get bots of our own?

I can pinpoint the exact time and place where bots of our own failed to happen, and all conversation and development went sideways, away from the vector that takes us to bots of our own (hashtag: #booo), and instead toward big companies doing more than ever to deal with us robotically, mostly to sell us shit.

The time was April 2016, and the place was Facebook’s F8 conference. It was on stage there that Mark Zuckerberg introduced “messenger bots”. He began,

Now that Messenger has scaled, we’re starting to develop ecosystems around it. And the first thing we’re doing is exploring how you can all communicate with businesses.

Note his use of the second person you. He’s speaking to audience members as individual human beings. He continued,

You probably interact with dozens of businesses every day. And some of them are probably really meaningful to you. But I’ve never met anyone who likes calling a business. And no one wants to have to install a new app for every service or business they want to interact with. So we think there’s gotta be a better way to do this.

We think you should be able to message a business the same way you message a friend. You should get a quick response, and it shouldn’t take your full attention, like a phone call would. And you shouldn’t have to install a new app.

This promised pure VRM: a way for a customer to relate to a vendor. For example, to issue a service request, or to intentcast for bids on a new washing machine or a car.

So at this point Mark seemed to be talking about a new communication channel that could relieve the typical pains of being a customer while also opening the floodgates of demand notifying supply when it’s ready to buy. Now here’s where it goes sideways:

So today we’re launching Messenger Platform. So you can build bots for Messenger.

By “you” Zuck now means developers. He continues,

And it’s a simple platform, powered by artificial intelligence, so you can build natural language services to communicate directly with people. So let’s take a look.

See the shift there? Up until that last sentence, he seemed to be promising something for people, for customers, for you and me: a better way to deal with business. But alas, it’s just shit:

CNN, for example, is going to be able to send you a daily digest of stories, right into messenger. And the more you use it, the more personalized it will get. And if you want to learn more about a specific topic, say a Supreme Court nomination or the zika virus, you just send a message and it will send you that information.

And right there the opportunity was lost. And all the promise, up there at the to of the hype cycle. Note how Aaron Batalion uses the word “reach” in  ‘Bot’ is the wrong name…and why people who think it’s silly are wrong, written not long after Zuck’s F8 speech: “In a micro app world, you build one experience on the Facebook platform and reach 1B people.”

What we needed, and still need, is for reach to go the other way: a standard bot design that would let lots of developers give us better ways to reach businesses. Today lots of developers compete to give us better ways to use the standards-based tools we call browsers and email clients. The same should be true of bots.

In Market intelligence that flows both ways, I describe one such approach, based on open source code, that doesn’t require locating your soul inside a giant personal data extraction business.

Here’s a diagram that shows how one person (me in this case) can relate to a company whose moccasins he owns:


The moccasins have their own pico: a cloud on the Net for a thing in the physical world: one that becomes a standard-issue conduit between customer and company.

A pico of this type might come in to being when the customer assigns a QR code to the moccasins and scans it. The customer and company can then share records about the product, or notify the other party when there’s a problem, a bargain on a new pair, or whatever. It’s tabula rasa: wide open.

The current code for this is called Wrangler. It’s open source and in Github. For the curious, Phil Windley explains how picos work in Reactive Programming With Picos.

It’s not bots yet, but it’s a helluva lot better place to start re-thinking and re-developing what bots should have been in the first place. Let’s start developing there, and not inside giant silos.

[Note: the image at the top is from this 2014 video by Capgemini explaining #VRM. Maybe now that Facebook is doing face-plants in the face of the GDPR, and privacy is finally a thing, the time is ripe, not only for #booos, but for the rest of the #VRM portfolio of unfinished and un-begun work on the personal side.]

6 responses to “What’s wrong with bots is they’re not ours”

  1. Doc,

    I came across Justin Lee’s article and your link tohere — very interesting — Thanks!

    I have been playing with Java chatbot for some time with a view to turning it into more of an “Avatar” of myself for people to talk to re my non-profit organisations when I am “off line” ie sleeping or not available:



    Would you be prepared to have a bit of a chat about how I might move forward with my plan?



    1. Thanks, Philip. Sure. Let’s talk. Write me at my first name @ my last name.

  2. Doc,
    I think there are deeper causes… below the layer of who owns and runs the bot.

    1. We lost the war for the internet, we’re not allowed to run our own servers at home any more. Unlike the days of the BBS, most systems are out of our hands.

    2. We’re losing the war for general purpose computation. More an more layers of DRM and forced “security updates” make it quite likely programming and running our own applications is going to be an increasingly rare thing.

    3. Most people don’t even know about the deep design decision called “ambient authority” which underlies all things Linux, Windows, and almost all code written on the planet. The implications of this design choice mean we can never have secure computers, ever.

    Things can be fixed, but there are several layers of problems that need to be addressed if we want to fulfill the original vision we used to share of the internet making things better for us all.

    1. Thanks, Mike.

      I’m not sure #1 is fully lost. But it might be. #2 is surely happening as well. And I was one of those “most people” in #3. You fixed that. For the curious, here’s the Wikipedia page on ambient authority.

  3. Hi Doc,
    I’m curious to see what you think can be done to turn this ship around… I’ve been poking my nose everywhere for years to try to raise at least some awareness of capability based security… but I have no way to tell if it has helped at all.

    Obviously the scope of the project is huge, possibly bigger than Apollo… forking everything isn’t going to happen quickly.

    1. Mike,

      I am convinced that full agency on the individual’s side, through tools for productive engagement, is the only answer. Regulation won’t do it. Commercial platforms won’t do it. Suppliers of privacy tech to website and online service makers and operators won’t do it. Lawyers won’t do it. While all of those will help, that help will only work when organizations shake the hands of individuals equipped to productively engage — in other words, when those individuals cease to be seen only as the dependent variables we call “users” and “consumers,” and who present themselves as fully human beings deserving of dignity and respect. The payoff for economies and cultures will be infinitely greater than whatever benefits come today from surveillance capitalism.

      We’ve been encouraging development of those tools at ProjectVRM for going on 12 years. And I am as sure now as I was at the start that those tools will get made, and used, and made ubiquitous. What’s changed is that I now believe that we need nonprofit organizations supporting that work. So far I know of only one, and that’s our own ProjectVRM spin-off, Customer Commons. Watch that space.

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