What is a chatbot?

A chatbot is a computer program that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP) to understand customer questions and automate responses to them, simulating human conversation.

The value of chatbots

Chatbots can make it easy for users to find the information they need by responding to their questions and requests—through text input, audio input, or both—without the need for human intervention.

Chatbot technology is almost everywhere these days, from the smart speakers at home to messaging applications in the workplace. The latest AI chatbots are often referred to as “virtual assistants” or “virtual agents.” They can use audio input, such as Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, or interact with you via SMS text messaging. Either way, you’re able to ask questions about what you need in a conversational way, and the chatbot can help refine your search through responses and follow-up questions.

How chatbots work

Historically, chatbots were text-based, and programmed to reply to a limited set of simple queries with answers that had been pre-written by the chatbot’s developers. They operated like an interactive FAQ, and while they worked well for those specific questions and answers on which they had been trained, they failed when presented with a complex question or one that hadn’t been predicted by the developers.

Over time, chatbots have integrated more rules and natural language processing, so end users can experience them in a conversational way. In fact, the latest types of chatbots are contextually aware and able to learn as they’re exposed to more and more human language.

Today’s AI chatbots use natural language understanding (NLU) to discern the user’s need. Then they use advanced AI tools to determine what the user is trying to accomplish. These technologies rely on machine learning and deep learning—elements of AI, with some nuanced differences—to develop an increasingly granular knowledge base of questions and responses that are based on user interactions. This improves their ability to predict user needs accurately and respond correctly over time.

For example, if a user asks about tomorrow’s weather, a traditional chatbot can respond plainly whether it will rain. An AI chatbot, however, might also inquire if the user wants to set an earlier alarm to adjust for the longer morning commute (due to rain).