Members of the media update team attended the conference, which took place at Workshop 17 at the V&A Waterfront.

Over 20 speakers took to the stage to discuss the past, present, and future of bot technology. Keynote speakers included Martin Raison, a research engineer at Facebook AI Research in Paris, and Justin Watson, co-founder of the open-source Botpress framework.

Other speakers represented companies such as Clevva, Feersum Engine, RetroRabbit, Yonder Media, First Technology Western Cape,,, DataProphet, WhereIsMyTransport, Simply Financial Services, IBM, SKA SA, and NATIVE VML.

The quest for General Intelligence

In his presentation on “Teaching Machines to Interact with People”, Raison discussed Facebook’s efforts to achieve General Intelligence. “All the machine learning techniques I’ve showed…only really applies at the sentence level, not the conversation level. In reality, all the chatbots are based on flow charts,” he explained.

“If you have a simple use case and you’re building your chatbot on top of it, you’re going to make something that works and provides a lot of value to your customers. But it’s going to be harder if you want to make something that is broader in scope, because your flow chart is going to get very, very difficult.

He noted that the problems users encounter with chatbots is, in part, because chatbots have no context about the world in general. To address chatbots’ lack of context, Facebook is making advances in helping bots perceive the world. But chatbots’ ability to reason – or have general intelligence – is a more difficult challenge to overcome, with labs across the world working on addressing this issue.

“I really want the user to see more of the general pattern, which is to go from machines that can solve very specialised problems, towards machines that can solve a wide variety of higher level problems that require having more context – like a deeper understanding about the world, more high-level reasoning, and interaction with environment,” Raison said.

Build bots that help, but not replace, humans

Tiaan de Kock, head of data at NATIVE VML, spoke on the topic of “Bots and Automation from the perspective of agencies and brands”.

He noted that bots have been growing faster than apps. “With mobile apps, in the first three months there was about 7 500 and in the first six months, 15 000. With bots, there’s already 11 000 globally in the first three months, going up to 30 000 within the first six months.”

De Kock pointed out that while the growth is exponential, not all of these bots offer quality. The opportunities to be first to market with quality chatbots are massive, he explained. “Out of Fortune 500 companies, only 9% are currently using chatbots. Of these, 30% of them are only using humans for customer service channels and 42% have no Messenger.”

His advice to brands is to build bot technology that is simpler and more basic, yet valuable. “We should just try not to mimic humans. We should try to use these technologies, at least at this early stage, to do things that will help our consumers and ultimately provide some utility.”

Insights from the BotCon Africa speakers left many attendees with a vision of what humans’ future will look like with bot technology. For some, the prediction that bots will take over jobs in multiple industry was a fearful one, while other attendees saw the value of bots and humans working together.

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It’s been almost a year since Absa started running a bot-type service called ChatBanking. Read how this technology could transform banking services across Africa in our article, Why Absa thinks social media banking is a big deal for Africa.