conversation chat
Credit: By marcwathieu on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Chat bots might never become the preferred medium for people to get their news every day, but experimenting in this space still offers an advantage for media organisations.

With technology like Amazon's Alexa or Google Home becoming more accessible, we might soon ask various gadgets and appliances in our connected homes to tell us the news on a daily basis.

Working on chat bots can help media outlets better understand how to interact with their audience in an automated but conversational manner, explained Martin Belam, social and new formats editor at the Guardian, speaking on a panel at the International Journalism Festival in Italy today (6 April).

"I don’t really see a future where people are desperate to use chat bots as a way of getting news," he said, adding that “with Google Home, Alexa, voice control in your PlayStation, we are not that far off from just being able to shout at stuff.”

“The question for an organisation like the Guardian is what does your news look like in that context.”

The Guardian’s work with chat bots and Alexa is an attempt to understand how a conversational automated experience would work.

The Guardian has been working on three bots so far: one that recommends recipes to users, a morning briefing bot, and a third which Belam is currently still testing, that aims to answer people’s questions about Brexit.

“People do chat to them as if they are living sentient beings, and the technology is nowhere near ready for that,” he said.

Jacqui Maher, head of interactive journalism at Condé Nast International, worked on the creation of the Vogue UK Messenger bot, launched around Fashion Week in February to offer the latest news about designers and their collections.

What Maher and her team did not anticipate during the development process before launch was that people would speak to the bot as they would to a person, saying “thank you” or “good morning”.

The bot did not know how to respond to “thank you”, coming back with a message stating that it did not understand the request.

“You should build it in a way that you have some kind of view of how people are interacting with it, and that it’s flexible enough that you can respond in near real-time to different behaviours,” she explained, also speaking on the panel.

When choosing a tool to build a chat bot, “you should look for something that’s flexible and lets you pivot and respond,” as well as set up notifications to be alerted to the terms and phrases the bot does not understand.

For Belam, people's tendency to interact with a chat bot as they would with a person as well as having a news bot in an environment where people would usually chat with friends also raises questions regarding ethics and transparency.

Some may expect the conversation with the bot to be a private conversation, without realising that their messages get sent to "a team of humans".

But experimenting in this space early is important "not because I think everyone will be using chat bots for news, but I think news organisations need to understand how that kind of conversational interface is going to develop", he said.

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