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With elections looming, chatbots come under the spotlight 
November 2, 2018
A conversational newsletter by
Earlier this month the State of California passed a law requiring companies to disclose when they’re using a bot to communicate with people online.

While the regulations don’t go into effect until next July, they serve as Exhibit A for how conversational technology is transforming law and politics on a global scale.
 

Fake news bot = the new robocall ☎️

California’s new law “specifically targets deceptive commercial and political bots, not those meant to help you, for example, pay a bill on a company’s website,” according to Quartz.

With Americans set to vote in midterm elections next week, there are growing concerns about the spread of false information via automated social media accounts and private messaging apps.

Robocalls (i.e. old-school telephone bots) meant to deter people from exercising their voting rights have been a mainstay of U.S. elections for decades, but the viral nature of digital communication channels makes them particularly effective propaganda tools.
 

It’s not just an American problem 🇺🇸

In the run-up to Brazil’s recent presidential elections, WhatsApp was flooded with rumors and viral misinformation by both supporters and opponents of far-right candidate (now President-elect) Jair Bolsonaro.  

As Buzzfeed News points out, a 2016 study found that nearly 100% of Brazilian internet users are on WhatsApp, which translates to 40% of the country’s 207 million people.

WhatsApp’s ubiquity, in combination with the fact that it’s encrypted end-to-end, makes it incredibly difficult to control the spread of false and dangerous information on the platform.

In Brazil, WhatsApp partnered with a Harvard-backed group of journalists called Comprova, which used the new WhatsApp Business API to set up a tip line for users to flag suspicious information.

Back in America, USA Today is taking a “fight fire with fire” approach. The leading national newspaper rolled out a fleet of chatbots across its website and mobile apps to share regional election news and information, like where to vote.

Going against the grain of bot hysteria, USA Today is trumpeting its chatbots as a “safe, reliable” source of campaign info, and Engadget reporter Jon Fingas agrees:
« In theory, you won't have to wade through the web at large to become a politically informed member of society.  
»

What if the bot is you? 👋

What California’s chatbot disclosure rules fail to consider is that the lines between what’s said by a bot and what’s said (or written) by a human are blurring.

The New York Times recently profiled a bestselling novelist who designed an AI program to help him write better sentences:
« It’s machine learning, facilitating and extending his own words, his own imagination.
»
Google has rolled out a number of features in Gmail to help automate the more mundane process of writing emails.

The Smart Reply feature allows you to select pat responses like “Thanks!” and “Sounds good to me,” while Smart Compose offers up whole words and phrases as you type, based on what it knows about you. 

Reactions have ranged from creeped out to thrilled. Slate’s Heather Schwedel admits that, “as a writer sometimes accustomed to staring at a blank screen,” the assistance is most welcome. Then there’s the novelty factor:
« Isn’t it sort of addictive to see a machine’s portrait of yourself reflected back at you? It’s too weird and uncanny and new to ignore.
»

Chatbots have feelings too 🤗

With all this anxiety in the air about politics, technology and the nature of humanity itself (!), it’s not surprising that more startups are developing tools to help calm us down, keep us company or support us through difficult times.

What may be surprising is that many of these tools are bots themselves.

In my latest piece for Marketing Tech News, I cover the emergence of “emotional AI” — chatbots trained to converse with human-like emotion and empathy.

Some of these bots are being used for therapeutic purposes or to help individuals navigate fraught situations like sexual harassment in the workplace.

Others can identify when a prospective customer is going through a tough time and needs a little more hand-holding… or when they really have to go to the bathroom.

How’s that for disclosure? You can read my full article here.
 
😎 Wishing you a reflective weekend. Send in your feedback, story ideas and AI-assisted poetry by responding to this email. 

Dan Levy
Editorial Director
@danjl
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