In the continued march to replace all humans with machines (we are partly joking, but only partly), chatbots and virtual assistants represent a great example. They may not yet make babies, but at the very least, they are going to completely transform customer experiences.

Chatbots have a major role to play in customer-focused digital transformation, exploiting artificial intelligence in achieving new levels of customer interaction. They also tie into the use of big data to personalize these interactions, within an easy to use interface.

Chatbots came about with the rise of mobile devices – in particular Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp – combined with customers’ desire for instant resolutions to their problems or needs, online, and preferably without speaking to a real-life agent. They are most often associated with customer service but in the broadest terms they can help with ordering, scheduling bookings and answering frequently asked questions. Basically, they automate part of the customer interaction while delivering greater customer satisfaction.

Messenger and WhatsApp today are at around two billion users and Facebook announced support for chatbots in Messenger way back in April 2016. This opened the floodgates for chatbot developers. It’s estimated around 34,000 bots were developed last year alone.

Etienne Merineau of wrote an interesting round up of the best bots of 2016 for VentureBeat, singling out KLM, Burberry, Charity: water and Bank of America for their innovative use of bots.

Charity: water, for example, teamed with Lokai and AKQA to use bots to illustrate the daily struggle to get clean water in Ethiopia. By texting with the bot, users can virtually accompany Yeshi, a fictional Ethiopian girl on her long journey to retrieve water. Yeshi interacts with the user by sending texts, images, videos, sound files, maps and GIFs of her surroundings during her trip.

Chatbots use artificial intelligence to simulate human conversation. They are the evolution of Live Chat, which we see on sites offering immediate help, but which were frequently limited by having only a number of pre-determined responses.

For now, bots cover reasonably simple stuff. For a customer service role they usually handle the more repetitive and simple questions. However, unlike humans, they keep going 24/7, never taking a day off, never having mood swings. This in turn frees up human customer service reps to focus on the more complicated interactions which makes for a good co-existence between chatbots and humans.

Bots can embrace deep learning. They can learn and evolve from their human interactions with customers and service reps. This is where they start taking over more from humans. If you want a chilling taste of where bots are going, read this article from MIT’s Technology Review on the creation of realistic facial expressions in chatbots and virtual assistants.

At Persistent, we are working on how chatbots can be the single interface for all employee engagement with our learning and mentoring programs, appraisal system, HR helpdesk, and really, everything else, for our global workforce. A kind of omnipresent, always-eager-to-engage mentor and manager, who knows you better than you do yourself, who understands your strengths and weaknesses, and can provide the right data, and more importantly, the pat on the back, or the kick in the butt, at the right time!

Imagine you, as an employee, connect to the chatbot and express your frustration on the job. Knowing your interests and present project allocation/status, the chatbot can either provide you some interesting content or point you to relevant internal job postings! The chatbot can also inform central resource management of your predicament, and flag you as a potential attrition case. Maybe the chatbot can prod you to take a break to recharge your batteries, and apply for leave on your behalf!  Know a manager who does all that for you today? Fat chance!

We’ll be watching this trend closely as an evolving and increasingly common part of digital transformation. For more on the evolution of chatbots, read this great article from AnswerDash on how chatbots are impacting customer service and another from Mezi on how to create the perfect A.I. bot.

Author – Siddhesh Bhobe, Head – Innovation & Marketing, Digital (@siddheshb)