Advances in AI have gathered speed so rapidly that even the savviest businesspeople are scrambling to catch up with the trends. Chatbots have the potential to rocket businesses into a new age of superb customer service and sensational returns on investments. By the end of this year, it is predicted that every type of industry and public service including healthcare and education will be implementing integrated systems responding quickly to innumerable client needs every minute of the day.

The dream of a robot capable of responding in a natural human way remained the stuff of fiction until the 21st century. The world is already used to robotic responses online and ‘conversing’ with virtual assistants but now we are at a development stage of Natural Language Processing (NLP) that could fully realize the fantasy. Advanced chatbots, more accurately described as conversational AI, are able to ‘learn’. They memorize and absorb information from human responses, allowing them to improve their conversation techniques.

Is it time to take a step back and question where this is leading society? Is this development exciting or frightening? For the young and in commerce there are brilliant opportunities ahead, no question, but for the elderly or those of an alternative mindset, views of these technological wonders may not be so positive. Of course, some will embrace the benefits while others may find the complexities of the technology to be a minefield best avoided.

Enthusiasts of chatbots point out the benefits to people with health conditions or impairments, the very elderly, and – most importantly – the lonely of all ages. There are those who wonder if AI and the chatbot revolution will make the enforced social distancing of the recent pandemic a permanent way of life that may not be altogether beneficial. Chatbots can help relieve long hours of loneliness and even assist in carrying out essential daily tasks but may also mask underlying needs that only human contact can supply.

Aside from online apps, robotic innovations include virtual pets that use the same idea of voice to ‘pet’ that develops a relationship as with a real dog. It is well known that pets can be important therapeutic aids so when there is no possibility of buying and keeping a live animal this technology may be helpful. The difference is that AI chatbots cannot ‘feel’. To date, it has proven challenging to create chatbots that respond to mood and react in an appropriate and helpful way to the user.

Designing conversation agents to counter loneliness is an important development in AI and one that saw real-time testing during the lockdowns and restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic resulted in millions of people of all ages simply being cut off for long periods from direct contact with work colleagues, friends, family, and everyday interactions on the street, bus, train, or at a local store. This was unthinkable in the pre-Covid-19 pandemic era. During the pandemic, many connected online via Zoom, Skype, Meet, and/or a host of other online chat and meeting services. This allowed individuals to maintain a connection to others. Some – experiencing long hours of loneliness – increasingly also signed up for AI chatbots to compensate.

For a growing number of individuals, loneliness is a way of life beyond pandemic conditions. This is a problem AI chatbot developers aim to address. One such company is Replika. Replika offers users the ability to creates an avatar capable of developing characteristics of the user it picks up from every ‘conversation’. Replika’s AI companions present themselves as friends who are always there to listen and talk. What is significant and somewhat interesting is that many reviews indicate young people are attached to this kind of AI chatbot. Does this show a hidden and worrying level of loneliness in our younger generation – or simply a new generation willing and able to explore the manifold benefits of new technologies? Perhaps we haven’t grown up beyond talking to our favorite teddy bear, a constant friend. How long can a chatbot engage a user once they realize it is not a real human? In other words, how close can a chatbot get to passing the Turing test?

Introduced in 1950 in computer scientist Alan Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, the Turing test caused quite a stir. The proposed test led to the ELIZA program (published by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966), which appeared to convince users that they were conversing with an intelligent being. In fact, the program was an early example of the chatbot technology used today focusing on keywords and phrases and pre-programmed responses. Since over half a century since these innovations occurred, this technology has only snowballed into the 21st century and shows no sign of slowing down.

The technological explosion of the digital age is tremendously exciting. It’s gratifying that there is still so much ingenuity and creativity in the current age, with many potential benefits for humankind. Companies and public services stand to benefit from improved customer services and can garner vital feedback for the future. Healthcare bots may facilitate better information and communication between patients and health workers. Chatbots have a clear role to play in security and home-alone situations.

The downside is that at this stage there are still many chatbot fails. Misinterpretation of words or phrases, inappropriate responses can be hilarious or disastrous. Other issues include out-of-context replies and assorted other malfunctions. These are all crucial problems to be sorted.

For the foreseeable future, the implementation of chatbots will continue to be an important area of focus for commerce, government, and public services. At the moment, chatbot content development, problem-solving, system development, and training make for highly sought skills. Virtual assistants are no longer a novelty. Perhaps we shall all get a personal chatbot avatar one day. Replika counts over seven million users already, so it’s not too difficult to imagine a time in the near future when it is as commonplace to have such a system as it is owning a smartphone. I just can’t see it replacing the teddy bear, though.