The bots are coming

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Last week was a great time to be a bot. Everybody was talking about you, especially Microsoft

What's a bot? It's an artificially intelligent assistant that can be added to chat software. The bot acts as a smart participant in a conversation you're having with friends. Or you can have a private chat just with the bot. And, bots can have their own tête-à-tête with other specialized bots on your behalf.

Facebook is introducing a bot that is a half-software/half-human assistant called M. M allows you to order food, get customer assistance or check restaurants, all without leaving your message stream. When needed, a member of the M team of human assistants takes care of a task for you. It's much like the Primer in Neal Stevenson's sci-fi novel The Diamond Age.

And, on the Amazon Echo, a digital assistant named Alexa is gaining more and more functionality as it taps into the bots of other applications that can control your home or order food. 

But, for me, the Microsoft bots are the most fascinating. Last week, at Microsoft's BUILD developers' conference, those bots took centre stage. In one demo, Cortana, Microsoft's personal digital assistant, participated in a conversation between two Microsoft employees. 

It noticed a mention of an upcoming conference, and, unbidden, added a link that opened an onscreen card about the conference. It later allowed the demonstrator to book a Westin hotel in the conference's host city. It did that by having a private chat with a Westin hotel bot to which the Cortana bot passed relevant information about the demonstrator and the conference. A few seconds later, it reported that a room was available and offered accommodation options. 

There are two things that are fascinating here. First, the bot is capable of natural language understanding and expression and can contextualize what it understands by tapping into all the data Microsoft has collected or had access to. 

Second, the Cortana bot can communicate with other bots that software developers can create. So, potentially, the Cortana bot could work with a network of bots to book not just hotels, but travel, restaurants, Uber, deliveries, etc. And, it could undertake those exchanges autonomously on your behalf.

Back in 1987, Apple released a video called "The Knowledge Navigator," which simulated exactly this kind of autonomous bot handshaking. So, it's curious that Microsoft seems to have gotten there first. Partly that's because in order to have the bots work well, the other bots would have to have access to a lot of your personal information, as would Cortana. Apple is pretty cautious about what personal data it shares, which is one reason why Siri is more limited than personal digital assistants from Google and Microsoft. And, of course, anyone using bots would need to knowingly trade that personal information for the convenience bots offer. 

Unfortunately for Microsoft, one of the most convenient places to use bots would be on smartphones, and Redmond has had almost zero traction with Windows phones. 

The bots also interest me for what they suggest for the future. Facebook, Microsoft and Google all see messaging apps like Messenger and Skype as the new applications platform. You might even consider chat as a software platform with bots and software plug-ins just another part of an ongoing conversation with friends and AI assistants.

Now add in the "anywhere in your house" voice recognition that makes Amazon's Echo so popular and then combine it with the enhanced Google Now voice Google introduced last week and with the hearables I've discussed in an earlier column. You can easily imagine an operating system entirely built on voice and bots alone. If that happens, we need to talk.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Image: brar_j/flickr

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.