Those of you who’ve spent some time on IRC chat networks probably remember the different kind of ‘bots” there: programmes designed to provide some fun (triviabots, statbots) to outright flooding of the chatservers. And now chatbots are back, albeit in an evolved way. They have become smarter thanks to enhanced AI (Artifical Intelligence), they are ready for more serious applications, and they’re targeting your instant messengers.

Some online helpdesks are starting to deploy services that allow you to interact in a more or less intelligent IM conversation with a robot that has access to the support database of that company. You can interact with them through websites as well as instant messaging (IM) services. IM users simply add the name of the IM bot to their buddy list the same way they add “real” people. The AI on thee bots is quite good, so the people talking to them almost feel like talking to real people (whereas what they’re really doing is just sending queries to the underlying database).

These systems can also be used within companies as a way for employees to look up information without browsing countless intranet pages. They can even connect to online databases and pull information on movies, stocks, weather, news …. Just about anything you can store in a database. ActiveBuddy, for example, sells pre-built IM bots that can connect to corporate directories or human resources databases so that employees can get their information faster and without calling HR people (ok, you may find this a sad evolution, but that is a whole new topic about the loss of human interaction).

Try it out for yourself, and add the Encarta chatbot to your MSN: While you’re at it, give the SmarterChild a try too: (just be warned, the smarterchild one also has targeted advertising that it throws in as you talk to it) . Another one you can have an online chat with is Jabberwock.

Of course, there is also a link to marketing. AOL has used ActiveBuddy’s IM technology in the past to promote the Lord of the Rings Trilogy for sweepstakes, with a contest where you can use AOL’s IM to talk to the “RingMessenger” and then ask it (him?) questions about the locations of the “Rings of Power” you need to win the sweepstakes.

Two of the companies making these bots are Conversagent and Vayosphere, if you’re inclined to have a go at it for your company or marketing campaigns.

Happy IM’ing!