Facebook made waves in the tech arena this past April when it announced that chatbots — computer programs that simulate human conversation, or chat, through artificial intelligence — would be facilitated exclusively through its Messenger application, enabling individuals and organizations to have an automated, intelligent assistant.

And now, North Carolina’s Innovation Center (iCenter) is testing chatbots to aid internal IT help desk personnel, potentially freeing them up to focus on more strategic tasks, said iCenter Director Eric Ellis, who also serves as North Carolina’s chief technology and innovation officer.

“About 80 to 90 percent of the tickets submitted to the IT help desk are for resetting passwords,” he said, “so if we can help there at all, it’s a win. Chatbots may be able to help us do that.”

If the test is successful, North Carolina workers would eventually report technology issues to a chatbot rather than calling or emailing the help desk. The chatbot would respond and perform the password reset immediately. If the issue is more complicated and requires the help of a live tech person, the chatbot would prioritize the call to the help desk. With chatbots handling the majority of the routine IT issues, IT staff could work on more complex issues.

Rise of the chatbot? Chatbots can be designed to make life easier in various ways. While the idea of the chatbot has been around for a long time, chatbots gained renewed notoriety recently as companies including the aforementioned Facebook, as well as Microsoft and Slack, have begun using them in a new way: to enable users to accomplish a wide range of tasks from one spot. “People use their smartphones for an increasing number of activities today and prefer to remain within the various apps they are using,” said Ellis. “Companies want to go where their customers are, hence the rise of the chatbot.” Rather than leaving his or her favorite app, a user can relay to a chatbot, usually in natural language, what he or she needs. Someone using Facebook, for instance, who sees that a friend’s relative has passed away could use a chatbot to order flowers from within Facebook. The technology essentially lets users handle a variety of tasks with the least amount of clicks possible. Microsoft introduced Clippy, the virtual assistant, with Windows 97, but eventually pulled the plug.

The recent proliferation and increased affordability of open data, APIs and natural language processing technologies have made chatbots more feasible. And fortunately, today’s chatbots aren’t like those clunky, irritating virtual assistants of yesteryear (some may remember Clippy, the virtual assistant Microsoft introduced with Windows 97 that was so annoying the company eventually pulled the plug), or the pop-ups that appear on websites offering unsolicited help.

“There is a right way and a wrong way to roll these out,” Ellis said. “You want people to be asking the chatbot for help, not for the chatbot to pop up unsolicited to interrupt them.”

A future full of chatbots?

Ellis said while the iCenter is still in the early stages of developing a chatbot that can integrate with the IT service management desk, he envisions big things for the future.

“We’re starting with a simple concept, but if it works well we can continue to grow it,” he said. “I think chatbots could potentially could offer a lot of value for citizens, kind of like an automated 311 that people could use to ask a wide variety of questions. I think that’s the next step.”

Ellis recently spoke at the 2016 NASCIO Annual Conference about the use of chatbots to serve citizens, and said a lot of state CIOs expressed interest in the technology and its potential benefits.

“Theoretically, bots could mean the introduction of new forms of automation that lead to cost savings and innovative ways of engaging with citizens or improving the overall citizen experience,” he said.

While some media reports about chatbots have focused on their potential to replace workers, Ellis sees it differently.

“Workers would potentially have the chance to focus on things that are more difficult and challenging rather than spending time on simple things like password resets,” he said. “That could also help boost morale. How frustrating is it to perform password resets every day and not really use your brain? We have some very smart people that are being underutilized. I believe chatbots will allow people to do more meaningful and valuable work.”

Ellis predicts chatbots will find their way into a number of government applications over the next five years. He even envisions chatbots eventually “sitting” alongside people in meetings and offering useful input.

“We’ve all sat in meetings where questions have come up that no one knows the answer to right away, but we take up time contemplating the answer and it stalls the dialog,” Ellis said. “What if a chatbot could pop in and answer the question for you and keep you in the flow of the meeting and maybe even enhance your meeting? I think chatbots are going to be interacting with us in a lot of different ways to make us more efficient state employees.”