Artificial Intelligence in the form of bots has invaded our homes and offices. Now, they’re after our wine supply as well. Should we be panicking?

Quick! Which locally produced wine goes with sushi, costs less than R300 a bottle and is in stock at your nearest wine store?

Time’s up. Maybe you were able to come up with an answer that fits the bill in one or two respects, but not many of us have all that information on hand at a moment’s notice. True, it’s nothing a good sommelier or knowledgeable store manager can’t handle, but it’s a tall order for ordinary wine lovers. Unless they have a mobile device on hand.

Asking questions

We’ve become quite adept at tapping in questions on our devices and expecting instant answers. Typical requests involve finding places or getting directions to them. It means relying on artificial intelligence (AI) to interpret our wishes and assemble the relevant bits and pieces of information – such as GPS coordinates, street maps and traffic patterns – to get us to our destination.

The technologically adventurous among us may even attempt using voice commands, if only for the sense of achievement when your carefully phrased and enunciated question is rewarded with an intelligent response after three attempts. The odd miscommunication aside, it’s clear software developers think they’re onto something special with this technology. Why?

Context

Let’s look at the original question again. None of the answers requires exceptional skill or special knowledge. In fact they may not require human input at all. With access to the right ratings, stock lists and tasting notes, the seemingly complex question amounts to little more than a routine database search – something computers already excel at.

The tricky variables actually lie elsewhere, and this is where virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana come in. Which wines are locally produced? Where is the nearest wine store? The answers require contextual data that our robotic helpers have to get elsewhere. AI’s ability to integrate information from the environment as required (or “learn” as us humans call it) has made things such as driverless cars and delivery drones a reality.

As it happens, one of the first things an AI bot learns is how to ask if it doesn’t know something.

Chatbots

Advancements in AI and the proliferation of instant messaging apps (which have overtaken social networks in active monthly users) have brought this conversational capability to our pockets. Chatbots are software services that mimic human interaction and communication through text or voice commands. Two places you’re sure to encounter them are Skype and Facebook Messenger, with WhatsApp to follow soon. If you contact Lidl UK through its Facebook page, you’re given the choice of a human consultant or a winebot called Margot who can make recommendations, list wines on sale or present a quiz. Wine-searcher.com has its own winebot called Casey to leverage the impressive database (wine-searcher.com/chatbot.lml).

Sites such as Chatfuel and Pandorabots allow brands to tap into this potential and create bots of their own for conversational marketing. But don’t expect chatbots to replace your friendly neighbourhood sommelier or store manager any time soon. They can save you a tiresome trip or phone call or navigating labyrinthine menus with a numeric keypad, and are helpful for checking facts, contacting a business about its product or asking for advice about a wine selection. But as yet, chatbots still have a long way to go before we can share a glass  of wine with them over dinner.

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