Where do you sit on chat-bots? Are they the future of customer service or are just a glorified version of the Microsoft Paperclip?
People can't seem to make up their minds, it seems. Yet, travel firms are being encouraged to consider the technology – especially those companies who struggle to deal with an influx of questions and complaints.
From a marketing point of view, they can act as another source of customer data, showing travel brands their customers' concerns, preferences and behaviours.
As Microsoft illustrated with its "Tay" chatbot, however, the technology is very much still a 'work in progress'. Tay resided on Twitter, responding to users' queries, and was programmed to learn from "her" conversations and get progressively "smarter."
But Tay ended up being a plaything for racists, trolls, and online troublemakers -- who persuaded Tay to blithely use racial slurs, defend white-supremacist propaganda, and even outright call for genocide.
Still, according to Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella "chatbots are the new apps".
So, should travel brands be thinking about creating their very own chatbot?
As we've reported on previously, Expedia are already up and running with their chat-bot, which uses users' preferences to offer them a handful of hotel options – they can then pay for their stay via the bot if they like what they see.
Expedia have been encouraged by comments from experts such as Pete Trainor, director of human-centred design at Nexus, who said:
"Just in terms of engaging audiences who can't handle complex user experiences, they're absolutely brilliant," he told the Guardian. "My mum won't use apps or websites, but she does text message and use WhatsApp to keep in touch because it's conversational and thus very human by design."
Meanwhile, Nitin Babel, co-founder of Indian startup Niki, whose chat-bot can book taxis, pay bills and order takeaway food among other tasks, believes that the technology will encourage those "users who are currently on the mobile internet just to converse with their friends and family to start utilising the platform for a much wider range of services".
But isn't it all a bit soon?
As it is obvious, though, this is a time of experimentation for the technology. Even huge advocates of the technology, Facebook, have suggested that travel brands would be wise to hold fire on integrating a chat-bot.
"It got really over-hyped really quickly," admitted Facebook's head of messaging products David Marcus. "This is a long journey, and you have to start somewhere."
Travel brands often haven't the inclination or the budget to experiment. If you can build a chat-bot that "helps you solve a problem better, or get to market faster" then great, says Danny Freed, founder of a chat-bot startup Joy. If you're just building one to follow a trend, you'll be wasting money.
For now, then, the suggestion is to prioritise technology which will help your travel business and your customers now. That's what Digital Trip's technology solutions promise to do – keep you ahead in the rapidly evolving travel market with software that has proven – rather than potential – benefits.