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At F8, Facebook's chatbots look to change communications

Facebook is expected to announce chatbots, among other things, at its annual F8 developer conference in San Francisco this week, in pursuit of its continuing goal of luring back younger users.

Chatbots are programs that largely use artificial intelligence to simulate conversations with humans; the technology will likely be included in the company's Messenger app. The goal is to change the way we communicate with businesses, and with each other, on the Internet.

"Bots are conversational so they are a natural extension of how we like to communicate and what we like to do," said Julie Ask, an analyst with Forrester. They're "like having an assistant. You can chat with the bot, ask the bot to do things for you, like order take-out or get a new lipstick."

Since F8 is a developer conference, Facebook will also likely show off API tools so enterprises and third-party developers can build chatbots and Live Chat plug-ins for business users. These announcements are not getting as much buzz as the chatbots at this point.

Think of chatbots as digital assistants that could help enterprises do away with 1-800 numbers, by taking customer questions, helping users find products and even handling problems.

"Bots will give consumers, who are more comfortable chatting with someone, the ability to buy products and services and get customer service," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "I personally don't like getting on the phone and would love for Messenger to be able to validate my identity and provide information I need. It would be a time saver."

Moorhead added that he expects chatbots first to work only in Messenger and then to be expanded to Facebook's search service.

"And I believe Facebook will also integrate chatbots in their ads so consumers can interact directly on Facebook versus moving off the site," he said.

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said chatbots could be a big move for Facebook.

"Users will be able to communicate with a restaurant to see if they can get a reservation on short notice, or communicate with a mechanic to find out what a tune-up might cost, for example," he said. "This takes away a little bit of the friction that takes place in commerce. All sorts of simple questions will now be answered by chatbots, rather than humans, taking some of the load off of the people who answer the phones and have to answer the same question over and over again."

Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner Inc., expects the company -- the largest social network in the world -- to come out strong during F8 this year.

Bots, deep learning and deep linking all "signal that the app architecture and user interaction models are changing," said Blau. "The new model will allow for a more seamless transition between individual pieces of content... I would expect them to support and innovate on these trends as they court developers to stick with them as they chart a future of more sophisticated app interactions and journeys."

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