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Los Angeles Times: Robot helpers are on the rise

by Jennifer Van Grove, LA Times, excerpt

You may not have unwrapped a robot on Christmas, but your new year will be filled with artificial intelligence.

The digital gift comes courtesy of Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other technology companies, large and small, that are making rapid advancements with virtual personal assistants that can solve problems and even complete tasks.

The assistants, sometimes referred to as “chatbots,” represent noteworthy advancements to computer programs that simulate conversations. Chatbots are not new — perhaps you’ve already conversed with the voice-based variety, say Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana. Pseudo-chatbots are already commonplace, such as an automated message from Amazon that a package was delivered or a text message that confirms a reservation.

But in 2016, you’ll encounter different, smarter varieties of chatbots, some of them appearing in your favorite social media applications.

“Chatbots are designed to answer questions, to perform searches, to interact with you in a very simple form, such as jokes or weather,” said Brian Solis, principal analyst with Altimeter Group. “Ultimately, they should be able to anticipate your needs and help you shop.”

“The reason why chat is becoming a very good Petri dish for (chatbot) experimentation is because it is such a simple window,” Altimeter’s Solis said.

“Philosophically, it is how we, as consumers, have been conditioned,” Solis said. “You want great service. You crave great experiences — and you feel like you’re entitled to them, regardless of your status.”

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