Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

Chatbots are the future and always will be

I read a lot online about how chatbots are the future. Ultimately, the proof of chatbots is in the eating—I mean, err, talking (this really is a crap metaphor). Let’s try one out to do something like… booking a flight.

The “domain model” of commercial passenger aviation is familiar to most people, but still there are a lot of choices to be made. Which airline? Which day do I want to fly? Some days are a bit cheaper than others. What seat class do I want? What ticket class do I want? (They are different things.) Do I want to book using my frequent flyer miles or with cash? Do I get checked baggage or just hand baggage? It might be slightly cheaper if I fly from London Gatwick rather than Heathrow. Do I want to land at Newark or JFK? Am I logged into my frequent flyer account? Do I need to supply Advance Passenger Information now or later? What about if I need to change flights? If I book business class for the long-haul segment, am I going to get business class on the short-haul codeshare segment? What are the cancellation conditions?

Apps like those provided by British Airways do their best to hide away the complexity of this. Within the confines of “I know I want to fly with BA”, rather than “I want to compare different airlines”, the app from BA provides a pretty good experience at managing this matrix of different options.

Now let’s try and book a flight using a chatbot.

First stop, Facebook Messenger. After all, Mark Zuckerberg said:

We think that you should just be able to message a business in the same way you message a friend

Well, I know that I like messaging friends at 8:30 on a Saturday morning demanding that they look up flights for me. So let’s go!

I open up Facebook. ‘New Message’. I type in British Airways. And I get… nothing.

Okay, this is just the Messenger thing they build into the default Facebook view. I guess I should open up the actual Facebook Messenger page. Let’s have a chat with British Airways.

I found, well, British Airways i360. Which is a giant levitating dougnut on Brighton beach. I thought about messaging it and asking whether or not the doughnut is currently levitating or not. But then I realised that there’s probably someone being paid not very much money to answer stupid questions from people on the Internet and left it be.

Maybe British Airways haven’t climbed on board the chatbot train yet. I’m sure some enterprising developer must have built a chatbot that lets me search and book flights. Let’s search for one, on Facebook Messenger. I had an insightful conversation with ‘Flight Bot’ that resulted in me… not being able to search for a flight. That went well.

I mean, I get it. It seemed like a good idea when they built it, maybe not now.

I still want to find a chatbot that can help me fly from London Heathrow to Newark Liberty International. That shouldn’t be too hard. So, as with all problems, let’s turn to Google. Oh, Google, find me a travel chatbot.

Huzzah! There are plenty to choose from. The popular travel booking sites Expedia, Skyscanner, Kayak and Cheapflights all have chatbots. On Facebook! Okay, let’s test Expedia.

That didn’t work out. I’m now feeling guilty about wasting some poor human’s time with a test query when I could just search on the web. Let’s give Skyscanner a go. This time, instead of just being a chat window, it asks me to “Get Started”. This means it’s actually a bot, I guess.

The fact that it’s taken me this long to find a bot to help me book a flight, when the apps and websites are already to hand is… kind of telling. But whatever, let’s play along.

Hi Tom! 🙂 Welcome to the Skyscanner bot. We’ll help you find your next trip ✈. What would you like to do?

  • Find a flight deal
  • Tell me more

I guess I should “Find a flight deal”.

OK, let’s start again… where would you like to go?

“New York City”. If you can get me there, you can get me anywhere.

A flight from New York, United States

  • Change origin city
  • Set as home airport

Where are you going?

  • Don’t know
  • Show weekend trips

Err, no, hold on, you asked me where I would like to go. I’m in London right now. I want to go from London. Click, tap, London.

A flight from London, United Kingdom

  • Change origin city
  • Set as home airport

Where are you going?

“New York City.”

A flight from New York City.

  • Change origin city
  • Set as home airport

Where are you going?

  • Don’t know
  • Show weekend trips

Oh Jesus, I’ve managed to get this piece of shit to go into an infinite loop just by asking it to go from London to New York.

I’m not kidding.

I was going to write a piece about how chatbots necessarily have to provide an experience that doesn’t allow the user to control the details of a somewhat complicated, but ordinary, process like booking an international flight. That compared to using the website or the app, you’d be less able to control some of the complex matrix of choices you make when booking a flight. I was also going to point out that chatbots do not allow for comparison shopping in a way that, say, tabbed browsing or multiple windows does. Being able to open up three different airlines in three different tabs and search their websites to compare and contrast.

Instead, I ended up talking to a chatbot created by a major travel comparison site that failed to grasp the difference between the city I wished to depart from and my destination. I’d understand if this were a weekend hackathon project built by some people dosed up on energy drinks. But this is a product from one of the companies in the top five of comparison sites.

While faffing around with this ridiculous bot, I did get a nice message from a human at Expedia directing me to their website, their phone lines and wishing me a nice weekend. All of which is much more useful than a bloody chatbot that can’t decide whether I’m talking about whether I’m going to New York or from New York.

From this experience, chatbots are clearly the future of human-computer interaction. On behalf of programmers everywhere, I implore you to waste a few more billions on building them, even if they don’t actually help your customers achieve what they want to do.