Tech Memo: Chatbot at Your Service

Artificial intelligence powers new digital assistants.

Got an urgent question or need? Forget Google. Pretty soon a chatbot might come to the rescue.

Already, chatbots—computer applications that can engage in simple “conversation” with a user, powered by artificial intelligence—have emerged as practical online tools. They can supply answers and respond to requests for help, whether it’s a customer asking a question or an employee filing a tech support ticket.

There are all kinds of tasks that we once thought were the domain of humans that can now be done by machines.

Many for-profit companies are ahead of the curve. Chatbots are being used by Citi to offer real-time banking help and by Louis Vuitton to answer product questions during peak holiday periods.

Most associations have yet to explore the potential of chatbots. That may soon change, says Arun Qamra, head of product for Radiance Labs, who has been studying the practical uses of chatbots since his days working for Google Research on machine learning initiatives.

“Chatbots come in many different flavors. The sort of applications that we’ve seen so far have included e-commerce and customer service applications, as well as internal employee-driven applications,” Qamra says. “Each one handles a simple task. These bots are only semi-intelligent and can, therefore, take on the load of humans, handing it off when real expertise is needed.”

That bot-plus-human teamwork can improve efficiency, so that it’s no longer necessary for, say, a member services coordinator to take a call from a member seeking basic renewal information. The coordinator can step in whenever a more complex interaction is needed.

“There are all kinds of tasks that we once thought were the domain of humans that can now be done by machines,” Qamra says. “Really, there’s no magic. What’s happening is that we have a large amount of data that can now be interconnected, and the algorithms and computational power of machines are much better at picking out patterns and making connections.”

Chatbots also have the potential to streamline routine office tasks. For example, they can be a frictionless system for scheduling meetings between two colleagues.

“Often when you’re setting up meetings, there’s this long back-and-forth between my calendar and your calendar,” Qamra says. “Instead, you can simply cc: a bot in the email, and it will coordinate with the other person to find a good time to meet based on your calendar.”

One of those AI-powered assistants, launched by, already exists and goes by the name of Amy or Andrew. It’s just one example of how associations might soon be able to harness the power of chatbots.

The tech world is “building out solutions to solve some very specific problems,” Qamra says. “An association CEO doesn’t necessarily need to know about the latest algorithms. What they need to know is all the tech companies that are building tools which might help them to problem solve.”

(Milkos/Getty Images)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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