Last month, at a tech meet up in London, a group of developers, entrepreneurs and the generally ‘tech curious’ got together to get their heads around all the excitement and hype surrounding the forthcoming ‘rise of the bots’. “Bots”, one excited digital engagement manager informed me, “will be everywhere by the end of the year.” But what are ‘bots’ and how will they be everywhere if even techy people know very little about them?
Bots are software robots and they help you do many of the things you are used to doing on your laptop, phone or tablet but more easily. For example, a software bot might be used to simplify ordering a pizza by allowing you to WhatsApp your order in the form of a conversation:
In some respects, this looks like a step back; why am I engaging with Pizza Planet via text on WhatApp?
The key development here is accessing a service through an app you already have on your phone. No need to find and download Pizza Planet’s app, just make contact in an interface you are familiar with. In some ways, this is a natural progression from apps. We are now app overloaded; there are millions of apps on the App Store and Google Play yet most of us use only a handful of them. Removing the need to access a dedicated app is removing a barrier to engagement and adoption.
Speaking like a machine
And removing barriers to adoption is the key area of innovation that makes the bot space really exciting. Remember the ‘Ask Jeeves’ search engine? Its unique feature was asking a question using the same natural language that you would use to ask a person a question. ‘Ask Jeeves’ didn’t (in theory) require us to learn the way a search engine understands information, except it turned out that Jeeves wasn’t all that clever so we resorted to learning how Google understands information – Google doesn’t like full sentences, it prefers keywords. This technology has now massively improved so that machines are much more capable of understanding what we mean when we ask questions and make statements in our language. This is a massive step forward because it means that humans will increasingly not need to think like machines in order to engage with computers.
What does this mean for UK housing?
Bots are about to make technology accessible to anyone who can articulate a question or a request. Most of your residents can say “my boiler is broken” but fewer can navigate to your website, find your app, download it, and request a maintenance job. Bots lets people use natural language to engage with you.
They also allow people to communicate and receive services from within an interface they are familiar with. Sending a text, WhatsApp or Facebook message is an everyday occurrence but using a housing provider’s self-service app isn’t.
So what does the future look like?
Maybe something like this:
Tenant: Can you tell me how much rent I owe this month?
Housing provider: You owe £450. You can pay by clicking here or if you need any help or advice with your finances, just ask.
Tenant: I will have trouble making that amount this month. Is there anything I can do?
Housing provider: I have slot tomorrow afternoon if you would like to come in and discuss a payment plan.
While this looks like a conversation with a human customer support agent, it’s actually a conversation with a computer. Bots will be able to access data about your residents stored in your housing management system to provide answers to common questions and action work when requests are made. What’s more, the bots will be able to learn about your tenants through their engagement and through insights gleaned from previous interactions.
Moving beyond text
Apple’s Siri has brought the idea of a voice-controlled assistant to the mainstream but its take-up has remained limited because users found that anything beyond a basic repertoire of commands led to a Google keyword search.
The principle behind Siri, i.e. one platform that can understand context and help you with anything, is a powerful one but it’s only recently that a critical mass of service providers have opened up their APIs to allow bots to connect with third parties and become really useful. A new arrival to the voice-controlled intelligent assistant world is Viv. Viv can handle complex spoken requests such as “Was it raining in Norwich three Thursdays ago?” as well as handle payments. From a housing perspective, you can imagine a future where all a tenants needs to do to access a housing provider’s services is to ask their smart device.
If you want to find out more about bots and other ‘bleeding edge’ technologies, check out HACT’s new Innovation Launch Pad (www.innovationlaunchpad.org).
Jay Saggar is the Connected Home Consortium’s coordinator.