Wow, This Makes Us Want To Ditch Facebook Messenger

Photo: Courtesy of Skype.
Your phone could be a whole lot smarter. Via different apps, it knows who your contacts are, what your upcoming travel plans are, and lets you order goods and services. What if all those separate capabilities could be combined? That's what Microsoft is doing through Skype, with the help of a surprising tool: bots.

Yes, despite the dramatic launch of Twitter chatbot Tay last week, Microsoft is imbuing its chat client with bots, but perhaps not in the way you may think. From within Skype, bots will help you order a pizza, book or manage a hotel reservation, or chat smarter with friends, thanks to help from Microsoft's digital assistant Cortana. Unlike Tay, an AI chatbot that learns from its interactions with humans, these bots are simply designed to act as intermediaries between you and another app or service.

Microsoft showed off Skype's bot-filled future onstage at the Microsoft Build Conference in San Francisco today. To summon a bot's services, all you have to do is talk to Cortana through a button in the upper right of the Skype app. Let's say it's dinnertime. You can tell Cortana that you want to order a pizza from Domino's. Then, because the Domino's app already knows your payment and address information, you just have to confirm a couple details with Cortana and your pizza is on its way. Similarly, you can use Cortana (again, from within Skype) to book a hotel room for an upcoming trip. (In these conversations, if things get too complicated for a bot's automated capabilities, it can always summon the help of a human to take over.) Once booked, it's automatically added to your calendar.

Cortana can then go a step farther — knowing that you've got an upcoming trip to Seattle, for example, and the dates, it can suggest you message a contact who lives in Seattle about your impending visit. It even automatically fills the message field with relevant information in a template format (along the lines of "Hey, I'll be in Seattle April 10-12. Would you want to meet up?").

Skype isn't the only chatting service trying to get smarter. Facebook Messenger is also integrating with other apps, including airlines, so that you can get tasks done without ever leaving its chat screen. Skype's bot-powered smarts, though, are made particularly convenient because of Cortana's voice dictation, and its integration with other parts of your phone, like your calendar.

You can check out the beginnings of Skype's bots for yourself in its updated Windows, Android, and iOS apps today, but right now things are pretty limited. Microsoft just gave developers the ability to create bots for Skype, so there are currently only a few sample bots (you can access them by heading to Contacts, then search "bots," then tap Bots at the top of the screen). Give it a month or two, though, and things should get really interesting.

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