Journalists beware: This bot we saw at Facebook F8 may do a better job than you

Key Points
  • Software developers at F8 are cheering Facebook's renewed push into chatbots
  • The Bot Shop shows how interactive bots could reform news with a bot for the BBC
  • The trick, developers say, is not to imitate human conversation
David Marcus
Michael Newberg | CNBC

When U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May called for a surprise election this week, some readers of the BBC learned of the startling political news not from the news giant's website or Twitter feed, but from a piece of software known as a bot.

Within minutes of the announcement, consumers who follow the BBC's Facebook page received an automated digital alert, delivered via the social network's Messenger service.

And the bot, generated automatically by a piece of software from The Bot Platform, a London-based start-up, didn't stop at delivering the news.

Like a good journalist, it added some context.

Because it had been programmed to know that May's reasons for the move stemmed from Britain's decision to leave the European Union, it followed the alert with a question:

Might the newly informed reader want to take a quiz on Brexit?

A "yes" answer to that query in turn triggered another question:

"Does the EU limit the size of coffins?"

The question spoke to a concern of many pro-Brexit voters about over-reaching EU bureaucrats.

But there is no such limit, so that concern at least was unfounded.

A correct answer to the BBC survey question in turn generated a short GIF animation showing U.K. foreign minister Boris Johnson cheering the news consumer's political knowledge.

The entertaining animation was an example of how developers are continuing to experiment with Facebook's emerging bots platform. The company made its first push into bots at last year's F8 developer conference, and announced on Tuesday that 100,000 have already been created, but acknowledged that it still has work to do getting those bots used by more people.

One reason may be that a lot of developers have been trying to imitate human conversation.

"People want bots to help them do things, not chat with them," said Syd Lawrence, founder and CEO of The Bot Platform, a 5-year-old company that has developed other bots for Warner Music, Monster Energy drinks and the Chelsea FC.

Lawrence, who was at the Messenger pavilion during F8, told CNBC that there's been "too much media hype" about bot technology — and not just on Facebook Messenger.

Several developers agreed and said software coders who try to trick online users into thinking that bots are humans are headed in the wrong direction.

"The key to software is making it as intuitive as possible," said Marty McDonough, a Los Angeles-based developer who has been writing iPhone apps for nearly a decade.

"People go on Messenger to interact with people, not bots," said McDonough, who has so far been disappointed with what bots are doing on Messenger.

"Once you try to be something you're not, users move on," he said.

Still, it's early days, and if bots can help create experiences like the one Lawrence's 12-person company designed for the BBC, online consumers may be seeing more of them.

Facebook Messenger now has 100K bots
Facebook Messenger now has 100K bots