Think Bots Are Here to Help Us? History Says Otherwise


Despite what financial planners say, past performance can be an excellent indicator of future results — especially when it comes to communications technology. 

The people who created previous generations of communications technologies envisioned particular uses for their inventions, but their ultimate usage almost always differed radically. 

In the end, communications technologies have always found a home in selling more products. And there’s no reason to think that bots will be any different. 

When Old Technologies Were New

The Telephone

The telephone was initially conceived as a technology to broadcast information. 

In its early days, the telephone was marketed to subscribers as a way to get news, information and entertainment. In fact, its criticality to daily life was such a foreign thought in its early days that Western Union turned down the rights to purchase the telephone patents in 1876, saying that the telephone had “too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” 

Of course, the telephone ultimately became a primary communication device, especially when it came to selling consumers more stuff. Even in the age of the internet, telemarketing is still a $21 billion business employing almost half a million people. 

The Radio

The radio was originally conceived as the first conference calling application. “Wireless enthusiasts” started using radio sets in the early 1900s to converse with one another, remotely over the ether.  

The advent of World War I transformed radio, when governments worldwide nationalized radio frequencies. In the early 1920s, radio pioneer David Sarnoff pitched the idea of a commercial broadcast network to investors but was told that, “the wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?” 

Yet, by the mid-1930s, radio advertising was bringing in over $100 million a year. 


Email was originally devised as a tool to share messages among academic researchers. So email’s metamorphosis into the leading technology for selling goods and services must surely surprise its inventors. 

Today, a huge chunk of internet traffic is email marketing messages, much of it in the form of unsolicited messages, in other words, SPAM. In fact, while over half of today’s email messages are SPAM, email remains the most successful contemporary method for marketing goods and services.


Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook as a program to allow students to share updates with college buddies. Today, Facebook is the world’s largest news outlet with 1.7 billion subscribers and Zuckerberg is (whether he admits it or not) the “world’s most powerful editor.” 

As a news outlet, advertising is the driving force behind the Facebook enterprise, accounting for $5.2 billion in first quarter revenues for 2016.

Chat is the New Black

Then there’s chat. Doug Brown and David Woolley created the first chat program, Talkomatic, back in 1973 as part of a computer-based education program at the University of Illinois. 

According to the inventors, in Talkomatic, “communication between people would play [only] an incidental role.” But as more people used the program, they began to form highly personal, social connections that had nothing to do with academics. “In other words, they just wanted to chat.”

By the late 1990s, consumers were chatting away using AOL AIM, Yahoo! Messenger and ICQ. 

Today, chat is evolving into a platform for application development. New chatbots marry artificial intelligence with legacy chat technology to create intelligent interfaces for consumers and workers alike. Companies like Microsoft, Facebook, IBM, Google and Slack are rolling out frameworks that enable third-party developers to create new chatbot-based services.  

So much for looking back. 

What can the past tell us about what to expect from the future of chat and other bot technologies?

Think Bots Are Here to Help Us?

Judging from the previous communications technology examples, it’s safe to say that the massive potential for bots is not in helping make healthcare decisions or providing public service to residents. 

Rather, the big opportunity is rooted in using bots to market and sell. You can be sure that bots will be used to grab our fleeting and fragile attention, and, when coupled with technologies that track our online and offline behaviors, will become progressively more effective at selling us more stuff.

It’s no coincidence that the first bots on display are commercial bots. The recent Facebook pizza bots may be a crude example of how bots can help increase sales, but we can expect more sophisticated artificial intelligence brought to bear in future iterations. 

New bot-based products will integrate our past shopping behavior, our online web behavior, and our online sharing patterns to coax us into buying more, by making “the right suggestion at the right time via the right channel.” 

And they will be sophisticated.  

Smart bots will eventually be able to select the appropriate tone of voice, the most effective time to reach out to us and the best promotion to increase sales. These bots may appear as popup chat bots on a web page, voice bots on a cellphone or an Alexa-style virtual assistant. 

And they will be subtle. 

Just like Google and Amazon today on the web, these bots will effectively drive consumer behavior without making us feel as if we’ve been manipulated. That’s why all the major online consumer companies are so interested in this technology gold mine.

So sure, they might help doctors make better diagnoses as well … but I wouldn’t take that to the bank.

Title image Siyan Ren

A technology strategist, David is VP Product Strategy at, a leading provider of user experience products, and a PhD candidate in Information Management, exploring information overload experienced by mobile workers.


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