Paul Rowe: Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa. I’m Paul Rowe from Vernon Systems. You may have also met Siri. She’s a celebri­ty in the bot world. Today I’m going to be intro­duc­ing you to some of the oth­er bots that I have met. 

Bots are pieces of auto­mat­ed soft­ware that fol­low through a set of oper­a­tions with some degree of inde­pen­dence. Often they’re mim­ic­k­ing human behav­ior, and they’re becom­ing increas­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed. They’ve been adopt­ed by muse­ums for a range of dif­fer­ent pur­pos­es. Anything from try­ing to answer vis­i­tor ques­tions to shar­ing col­lec­tions online. 

So this is one of the first bots I ever met. He was called [whisper-hisses] the war­lock” and he came from a place called [whisper-hisses] Firetop Mountain. Which I believe is some­where near Huntley. He was my guide in a choose-your-own-adventure book. 

And so you might think I’m jok­ing but it is actu­al­ly a kind of bot, just a paper-based, ana­log one. So the book works through a series of pre­de­fined ques­tions, and depend­ing on your answers, you’re led through to fur­ther snip­pets of con­tent and ques­tions. Hot tip: don’t open the door with the skeletons. 

And so if we fast-forward to the present, here’s Auckland Art Gallery’s chat bot. It can answer sim­ple ques­tions. So it knows for instance what’s on at the moment, and their open­ing hours. But it’s also built on top of a con­cept used in the Send Me SFMOMA app. So it’s hooked into the online col­lec­tion. So I can for instance com­mand send me cake!” And sure enough I get vir­tu­al cake as rep­re­sent­ed in the gallery’s col­lec­tion. And I think I’ve there­by proved that I can have my cake and eat it too. 

And so that par­tic­u­lar chat bot is built using the Facebook Messenger app. This plat­form already under­stands nat­ur­al lan­guage, and it’s got a whole pro­gram­ming lan­guage for defin­ing the con­ver­sa­tion flows and for inte­grat­ing oth­er kinds of data sources. 

One of my favorite imple­men­ta­tions of the Messenger chat bot is Sarah Powell’s copy­right bot. It takes the work­flow for check­ing what the cur­rent copy­right of a work in New Zealand is and then imple­ments that as a sim­ple ques­tion and answer chat. 

Bots can also be used for the one-way shar­ing of con­tent. This par­tic­u­lar exam­ple uses Twitter’s API to share four images every day from the Rijksmuseum’s col­lec­tion. And that can help uncov­er gems that maybe would­n’t nor­mal­ly be shown to the pub­lic, like the intrigu­ing Boy pick­ing off Fleas” from the 1600s. 

The bound­aries of bots are get­ting pushed for­ward in sev­er­al dif­fer­ent direc­tions. Some are able to now use self-learning to improve their con­ver­sa­tion­al skills. Others can pull in more detailed data sources, or can under­stand the con­text of the vis­i­tor such as their loca­tion to pro­vide more use­ful infor­ma­tion. This par­tic­u­lar exam­ple is called the Woebot, and it’s able to pro­vide ther­a­py ser­vices in the form of self-help videos and var­i­ous work­flows that peo­ple can go through. We’ve also seen now voice-driven bots, for exam­ple Siri and Alexa. 

In 2018 the Smithsonian intro­duced Pepper the Robot, and this actu­al­ly com­bined sev­er­al of these ele­ments. It’s a mov­ing mechan­i­cal robot. It’s got some built-in script­ed con­ver­sa­tions. It’s even got a few dance moves built in. And it has a tablet for dis­play­ing image and video respons­es. They’re using it as a way of greet­ing vis­i­tors, and it’s a nov­el way of engag­ing them. My only con­cern is that we’re start­ing to enter into uncan­ny val­ley as these bots are slow­ly get­ting clos­er at mim­ic­k­ing us. 

And so there are eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions around the use of bots. Are peo­ple com­fort­able with shar­ing things like their loca­tion with a bot? What hap­pens to the data that the bot’s gath­er­ing as you inter­act with it? So these are things to think about as you imple­ment these dif­fer­ent sys­tems. Are we also com­fort­able with being in the hands of dig­i­tal giants such as Amazon and Facebook? 

If you’re build­ing a chat bot you also need to see that it can answer a rea­son­able range of typ­i­cal vis­i­tor ques­tions. So do some thor­ough test­ing. We don’t want a sit­u­a­tion like here where I asked Siri, Open the air­lock HAL,” and then sur­pris­ing­ly she was­n’t will­ing to dis­cuss the topic. 

You also need to plan out that deci­sion tree in a chat bot and think about what’ll hap­pen if the bot gets into a dead end. We don’t want a sit­u­a­tion like here where a per­son­al reminder chat bot got stuck in a con­tin­u­ous cir­cle with the Endless Screaming bot. Reminder. AHHHHH! Reminder. AHHHHH!”

So if you’re not will­ing to write any code, there are actu­al­ly out-of-the box solu­tions that can let you build up these con­ver­sa­tion work­flows with­out writ­ing any code. So they’re mature sys­tems and there are sev­er­al on the mar­ket, includ­ing Chatfuel and Botsify. 

Here’s an exam­ple from the Guggenheim Museum. The Guggenheim Tumblr account again is post­ing ran­dom sam­ples of their con­tent. But the dif­fer­ence here is that it’s writ­ten by an inde­pen­dent per­son that just loves this col­lec­tion. And so for me meet­ing these dif­fer­ent bots has just rein­forced one thing: the images that you’re cap­tur­ing, the online col­lec­tions you’re shar­ing, just pro­vide a foun­da­tion for all dif­fer­ent ways of engag­ing your audi­ence. The more acces­si­ble your con­tent is, the more open the licens­es you use, the more chance you’ve got of hav­ing your con­tent used in new and dif­fer­ent ways. 

I’ve cre­at­ed a slide with links to all of the bots that I’ve men­tioned today and the oth­er relat­ed tools. So I’ll put all of that up on Slideshare. And as a bonus there’s a link to Seb Chan’s conference-themed choose-your-own adven­ture. Hasta la vista.

Further Reference

National Digital Forum 2019 event page