Law and Order in a Bot-to-Bot World

by: | Dec 19, 2016

No doubt about it, bots are coming. Forgive the hyperbole, but I mean REALLY coming  —  in a big, pervasive, omnipresent, life-changing sort of way.

good bot bad bot ebookI’m not talking about today’s experimental first-generation business chatbots on consumer messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger, Kik and WeChat.

I’m talking about personal bots. Maybe not in 2017, but soon each of us may have a virtual personal assistant to help us  —  and they’ll coexist in the digital ether with AI-powered software agents that represent businesses.

Imagine that you need a hotel room for a last minute business trip. You tell your digital assistant to go find you one  —  along with a few other parameters, like basic requirements and max budget. Your bot can instantly distill EVERY SINGLE REVIEW ever posted on, Expedia and TripAdvisor. It then goes off to negotiate pricing with bots that represent favorable (and available) hotels, like Westin or Marriott.

I recently guided a thought-provoking discussion about this topic at WPP’s Stream, held in Ojai, California, along with Eric Shapiro, who co-founded ArcTouch with me. The “unconference” format of Stream allowed us to present this idea to a group of progressive marketing and ad execs, and get immediate feedback. As the discussion unfolded, the reality of where we’re headed set in. This could change everything. Especially as you start to think about how we do business.

WPP Stream Discussion

Discussion at WPP Stream USA 2016

Marketing Today

Today, much of marketing relies on human emotion. Great marketing leverages emotion to help companies build brand relationships, influence, and ultimately drive purchase intent. The web and social media offer unprecedented information transparency  —  and make it easier for digitally savvy consumers to distinguish between hype and actual value for the products and services we seek. But undeniably, we humans are still influenced by emotion, and our time and human brain capacity is finite. We can’t efficiently synthesize the wealth of information available, so we often perform a limited search for online feedback about a product or service, then ultimately make buying decisions based on intuition and emotion.

But imagine a future where a personal bot, motivated completely by logic and unswayed by emotion, has access to all the information in the world, and can synthesize and analyze it in seconds. And imagine that trusted personal bot is empowered to make purchase decisions. Then how do brands build loyalty, or does loyalty even matter? How do startups, without any following, build awareness to a universe of bot “consumers”?

The answer, of course, is through bot-to-bot marketing.

The new B2B: Bot-to-Bot Marketing

Businesses will have to respond to an emerging world of virtual personal assistants by creating their own agents, which unlike today’s chatbots designed to communicate with humans, are designed specifically to interact with consumers’ personal bots. This raises a lot of questions, to say the least, especially for traditional marketing firms that are still coming to grips with how programmatic advertising is changing how we reach audiences.

How will brand bots “influence” personal bots? In the hotel example, how does the Westin bot “win” the negotiation over its competitor Marriott bot? What does a “promotion” in this logic-driven world look like? Will brands be able to pay Google or Facebook a fee, e.g. pay per click, so that their brand bot is more “likable” to a personal bot? How do you affect or improve your bot “reputation”? How do you make your brand bot more “discoverable”?

I’d love to have the answers, of course. But we’ll be grappling with these questions soon enough.

However, there is one thing that we  —  as humans, and as businesses and developers creating these bot-based experiences  —  need to start thinking about now.

Redux: The Laws of Robots Applied in 2017

I mentioned earlier that today’s chatbots, which are rapidly populating consumer messaging platforms, are often guilty of bad behavior. Sadly, user experience has been a casualty for many companies rushing to have a presence on these platforms. There are some great bots that are focused and serve a very specific purpose. These good bots act as a brand concierge, helping users get quick answers and directing them to other mediums, like the web, apps or even (hark!) human customer service agents.

Of course, it’s early days, and the platforms and artificial intelligence we can apply to these digital agents is still fairly primitive. Especially compared to where we’re headed. Massive capital and immense brainpower is being invested in AI from the likes of Amazon, Google, IBM and an ecosystem of startups. This investment will eventually make the vision idea of a incredibly capable personal bot a reality.

The inevitability of this got me thinking. For this bot-to-bot universe to function smoothly and productively, we humans whom these bots will represent need to fully trust their virtual agents. We need some guiding principles.

In 1942, science fiction author Isaac Asimov published a short story called “Runaround” that defined the Three Laws of Robotics, which have since been referenced and iterated upon dozens of times in other literature and film. As technology has evolved, these laws have also been taken out of the realm of science fiction and brought into discussions about early robotics technology. The original laws are as follows:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Inspired by Asimov’s laws, I’m humbly suggesting the following Three Laws of Personal Bots:

  1. A personal bot must not do harm to other personal bots or business bots.
  2. A personal bot must always make buying decisions according to the best interest of its human.
  3. A personal bot must resist being influenced or manipulated by “sponsored bots” from businesses.

Perhaps more importantly to consider, especially for marketers, is some governing principles to guide behavior for business bots. To start:

  1. A business bot must not manipulate or harm personal bots, or sabotage other business bots.
  2. A business bot must truthfully and faithfully represent its business  —  without exaggerating the capabilities of the product or service.
  3. A business bot must be helpful to personal bots, even going so far as providing information that may not benefit the business directly.

What do you think? Tweet with hashtag #LawsOfBots to chime in guiding principles that you think should govern personal and business bots.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published by WPP Stream on Medium.]