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Chatbots rise, and the future may be 're-written'

Robot
Vladyslav Otsiatsia | Getty Images

Although they may not be the type of humanoid robots you imagine, roaming the streets like a scene out of the movie "I, Robot"; chatbots are on the march nonetheless.

Many in the technology sector think chatbots—interactive messaging powered by artificial intelligence (AI)—are the next big form of communication, and their prevalence is already larger than you might expect. Microsoft recently had an embarrassing experiment with its chatbot experiment, while Facebook may be set to roll out a version of its own, Techcrunch reported last week.

Many investors around Silicon Valley also see this as one of the next wave of disruptive technologies. Phil Libin, venture capitalist and co-founder of Evernote, recently told "Closing Bell" that "the world is about to be re-written, and bots are going to be a big part of the future…we are going to be making products over the next few years that fit much more naturally."

So what exactly are these chatbots that are popping up all over? And will they spell the end of humanity as we know it, a frequent fear associated with AI?

'Rich world of conversations'

"Real human positions cannot be entirely replaced by these chatbots, so they will eventually work together." -Yolanda Gil, computer science professor, USC

The simplest answer is a computer software program that is able to intelligently communicate with humans through artificial intelligence.

Tech companies like Microsoft are placing big bets on the computer software, which is able to intelligently communicate with humans via AI. Microsoft recently launched its first attempt with a Twitter chatbot named "Tay"; however things didn't go quite according to plan when "Tay" started spewing racist comments to some user's questions.

However, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella isn't giving up on chatbots. It's just "back to the drawing board," he said recently at the company's developer conference. Microsoft also announced that it will be launching new tools to help developers build their own chatbots into their apps.

"This is the rich world of conversations that we envision, people to people, people to personal digital assistants, people to bots, and even personal digital assistants calling on bots on your behalf. That's the world that you're going to get to see in the years to come," Nadella said.

It's not just the tech behemoths who are trying to get in on the space. Fast food Mexican chain Taco Bell is trying to spice up its ordering options with its integration of what it calls a "TacoBot" into the workplace messaging app, Slack. It's currently in a testing phase, but the company's artificial intelligence software is hoping to allow users to communicate with a bot, place orders and pay for it all through Slack.

TacoBot can even give recommendations if customers are having a hard time deciding between tacos or a burrito.

AI critics have warned about the threat to the job market, and according to a recent report from the World Economic Forum, over five million jobs could be wiped out globally in the next five years due to the rise of robots. The jobs most at risk appear to be office or administrative positions—roles in which chatbots seemingly may excel.

But Yolanda Gil, computer science professor at University of Southern California and a member of the Association for Computing Machinery, isn't so concerned that these chatbots will be stealing jobs from the workforce. In fact, she thinks they will just work alongside humans as a secondary means of assistance.

"A.I. systems in general are so limited. One thing that people don't understand is that they have no common sense and very little context about the world that we live in," Gil said. "They won't replace or work in lieu of the real people."

The growing role of automation in the workplace is a source of anxiety to a middle class that has already lost jobs due to outsourcing and economic shifts. For years, blue collar jobs were seen as most imperiled, but an increasing number of white collar roles are now considered the crosshairs. Last year, billionaire investor Jeff Greene warned that "what globalization did to the blue-collar worker in manufacturing over 30 or 40 years, artificial intelligence ... I believe will do to the white-collar workforce in the next five to 10 years." He called the state of affairs "a national emergency."

Yet observers like USC's Gil disagree. "It's a way to add more capacity to the company without getting rid of the other jobs. The real human positions cannot be entirely replaced by these chatbots so they will eventually work together," she said.

Chatbots "will deal with the simple cases, but humans will still be forced to take care of the more complex cases," she added.

While the rise of artificial intelligence and robots could have an impact on the job market, Phil Libin says we should be focused on the positive aspects instead of the negatives.

"I think all new technologies have an element of being a little bit scary, and I think it's easier to see the downsides than the upsides because the upsides require a lot more imagination, but in every point in the past, new technology has had many more upsides than downsides," he said.