In the late eighties, the Oscar Nominated movie ‘Field of Dreams‘ posed an interesting philosophical question, in the form of a voice that Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), an Iowa farmer kept hearing over and over again, “If you build it, they will come“.

Would they? Was life, business and all our endeavours really that simple when you obeyed that inner voice? Well, in the movie they did indeed come, The Chicago White Sox that is.

If you’ve read anything business related in the past 6 months then you’ve definitely come across the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Warren Buffet is talking about the havoc it’s going to unleash on companies (Warren Buffett Says Artificial Intelligence Will ‘Hurt’ Berkshire Hathaway’s Business). Elon Musk is plotting a strategy to save us from it (Elon Musk’s Billion-Dollar Crusade to stop the A.I. Apocalypse) And Mark Zuckerberg is embracing it for all he’s worth (Zuckerberg builds artificial intelligence assistant to run house, entertain toddler).

I’m fascinated with Robots and AI. I do think they’ll change the world, and I don’t think there’s anything we can do to stop them. This is simply a digital version of what we did with farming equipment, and then with factories and the assembly line. Remember when banks did away with the traditional bank manager and centralised many of their functions? AI is just an on-steroids version of what we started back then. Human beings have always been looking for and inventing ways to master their environments.

Masters of the Universe

Consider this…. the only time you sweat is for fun and because you choose to do so. Machines have largely taken away the physical labour in your world (of course we still have labour intensive jobs, however, nothing like we used to). This is the result of the Industrial Revolution and human beings mastering their physical environments.

It’s therefore not inconceivable to imagine a world in which the only time you will think will be for fun and because you choose to do so. We’re working on mastering our cognitive (mental) environment. You don’t need to remember telephone numbers, we carry a device that remembers, recalls and places a call for us. You have no idea how much money is in your bank account right now (it’s below zero, and you have no idea how far below). We trust machines to keep track, make payments, receive payments, calculate interest, etc, etc. When you slam your foot onto your brake in wet weather you don’t worry about your wheels locking up and your car skidding out of control. You car is doing all that thinking on your behalf.

So We Built One

When an opportunity presented itself to build a very basic form of AI, by way of a Facebook Messenger Chatbot, we jumped at the chance. We’re now onto our third one, and I feel like every time I engage with one of them, I’m touching the future (slow down Barrie).

In it’s most basic form a Chatbot is a combination of a website (navigation based engagement) and Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa, or Cortana. The navigation/website part involves setting up a predetermined path for people to choose from. People are presented with defined options and must then select their way through in order to find what they’re looking for.

The AI part has been the most fun and paradigm shifting. Up until now when you’re looking for information you have to work out how someone has designed a website? You’re stuck with their structure and have to work our their thinking. However, if you want your Chatbot to really work, you’ve got to anticipate how people are going to ask for information, and ensure the Bot is able to deliver exactly what they’re asking for. Of course this isn’t new at all. Google et al, have been trying to solve this for the longest time. It’s now moving main stream and I imagine it won’t be long until everyone is having to work this out. A Chatbot’s success will live and die on how customer centric the bot is. Having had this experience I have realised that Websites aren’t really customer centric at all. Certainly not when you put them next to a Chatbot.

Is This The Future?

I’ve been asked if Chatbots and AI are really the future? For me it’s a little like asking if a Fax Machine was necessary back in the eighties, or if cell phones might be more than a fad back in the nineties. Bots and AI are already here. Siri and Google Assistant have millions of people getting used to the idea of asking a bot for information.

There are already bots designed for people to chat to them as if it was a human being on the other end. I have a ‘anti-depression bot‘ checking in with me each morning to assess my mood and teach me skills to cope with a difficult world (I’m OK, thanks for asking, I’m on the ride to see what it does with my feelings?). In the US there’s an insomnia bot for people who can’t sleep and want someone (something) to talk to at 3am. The tech is far from perfect, however, it’s a lot better than a website, and while we’re in this experimentation phase, people are mostly quite forgiving.

And if you build one, do they come? The Chicago White Sox haven’t rolled in yet. As with all things new, it’s only the very early adopters, however, I’ve watched carefully, and I think this isn’t as large a jump as you might imagine.

Want to Play?

If you’d like to take a look at one of the bots we built and play a little, then open Messenger on your phone and search for ‘Cedar Lakes Clubhouse‘. Or click on this link and Messenger will open (on your phone or your laptop browser) and you can ‘Get Started’. Cedar Lakes Clubhouse has had the most development so far from an AI perspective as the community has played with it to make it smarter. Tap through the menu, or ask Gnu (the bot has a name) a question about the Clubhouse Restaurant and Bar. There’s even a BotQuiz if you’d like to try your hand at winning a R100 voucher to be used on your next meal at the Clubhouse (they’ll have to beam you in, Scotty).