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How many of the apps on your smartphone do you really use? According to The Verge, a virtual assistant named Amy made by the New York City startup X.ai, exemplifies a new frontier in personal computing: the conversational smart bot. “There is a paradigm shift about to happen in how software is being delivered,” says Dennis Mortensen, the founder and CEO of X.ai. “I just don’t believe that apps is the future.” The data backs that up. Consumers are experiencing app fatigue: the average person downloads zero apps per month, and spends 80 percent of their time in just three of the apps they do use. That’s why an increasing number of developers are trying to circumvent the app store and reach consumers by making the basic email and messaging tools we use every day smarter.

As The Economist points out, users should find bots like Amy simpler to use. Installation takes seconds, and switching between bots does not involve tapping on another app icon. Much like web pages, they live on servers, not a user’s device, meaning they are easier to create and update. Facebook and Microsoft understand the potential of bots and are making a strong push into the bot space.

Because the new model for interaction is conversation, bots can easily be launched from open protocols like SMS or email. You don’t need to find Amy in the app store, make space for it on your smartphone home screen, or create a username and password. You would give it access to your Google account, CC it on your email, and it goes to work from there. “That’s one of the big advantages I see between bots and apps,” says Ben Brown, from the smart bot startup Howdy. “Let’s say I buy a plane ticket. The flight gets delayed and I get an SMS alert. But now I can reply to that message and ask questions. No downloading or discovery issues. No logins or passwords. I chat with the airline’s bot, and when I don’t need it anymore, it’s gone.”

While Amy is one of the newest bots, there are some at work that you may already know. Amazon’s Echo features a smart assistant named Alexa you can control with your voice. Like Cortana from Microsoft and Siri from Apple, Alexa is a command and control bot, a generalized artificial intelligence (AI) that can handle a variety of different tasks. It can also connect you to various smaller bots with a much more limited and focused repertoire: Alexa, call me an Uber. Alexa, play me this song on Spotify.

“Not all bots have AI, and not all AI is a bot,” says Brown. “What they do have in common is a reliance on conversation. Bots are a user interface to a service that is text or language based instead of based in a graphical user interface.” That is one of the reasons many bot builders believe it will be far cheaper for businesses to create bots than mobile apps. “There are only three million or so apps in the store,” says Shane Mac, CEO of Assist (a smart bot startup). “There will be ten or a hundred times more bots.”

Most of these bots won’t be as adaptable or conversationally fluent as Amy. “They will be search functions, powered by natural language —instead of filling out a form or running a search, you essentially interact with a search functionality by going back and forth in a conversational framework,” says Matt Turck, a venture capitalist who invested in X.ai. “You basically go back and forth to narrow down your choice, and the bot searches one or several databases to retrieve an answer.”

The way Mortensen sees it, there will be two classes of digital assistants, the broad and the specific, or as it he calls it, “horizontal and vertical AI.” Cortana and Siri are broad, horizontal AI: agents with a large, generalized knowledge of the world. You can ask them a lot of different questions, and they can handle a variety of situations, but they also get things wrong a lot. If X.ai ever plans to make money off Amy, it can’t afford to make the same mistakes. “We are hell-bent on being world class at this one thing – scheduling meetings. Not kind of half-assed at looking up a little bit of hotel rooms, doing a little bit of flights, no just really world class at scheduling meetings,” Mortensen says.

If you are tired of looking at a smartphone full of apps you don’t use, it looks like you may have another way of accomplishing tasks. Bots may become your new “doer” of tasks.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: iPhone apps liquid, Flickr)