Chatbots are used by organisations in both the public and private sector to automate certain processes. This includes external processes, such as customer service interactions, or internal processes, such as information retrieval by employees.
Chatbots typically interact with users via text, though images are now a common feature of Chatbot interactions and there are a number of ‘bots with speech capabilities. This conversational capacity has been key to their success, as it reflects a consumer trend – the move away from voice-based channels and the embracing of chat-based channels.
The technology is remarkably versatile, allowing it to be deployed in a wide range of contexts. For instance, Local Governments have used Chatbots to automate the process by which fly-tipping is reported. Businesses have also used them to automate ticket booking processes or as an internal support resource for employees looking for advice.
The biggest takeaway here is that Chatbots are typically more targeted. They are not expected to fulfil an organisation-wide role but to provide a localised service that allows organisations to cut costs while also improving the quality of customer service.
In many ways, a Digital Agent acts as a speech-based interface between you and your networked devices. As a conversational AI, it allows you to interact with a wide range of digital apps, applications and features. For this reason, it requires a comprehensive understanding of language that typically goes far deeper than that of a Chatbot.
Whereas a Chatbot focuses on a relatively narrow range of issues, a Digital Agent could be asked to do anything. It can be used for setting appointments, performing internet searches, playing music, getting directions, checking a flight’s status or reading the news. Essentially, it’s a human avatar for your digital network. Rather than fiddling with an endless array of apps and switching back and forth between devices, you have a single control interface – the digital assistant.
Though there’s likely to be significant overlap between some Chatbots and Digital Agents, it’s possible to generalise and sum up the key distinctions in three ways.
- Purpose – Chatbots are typically designed with information collection, retrieval and signposting functions in mind. They provide users with basic information, gather data from users and point them towards other self-serve tools, such as online forms. Digital Agents are designed to interact with a wide range of digital devices and applications, providing you with a simple and singular means of controlling and using them.
- Scope – Chatbots are designed to automate a handful of specific enquiries. For instance, a Local Government Revenue & Benefits Chatbot is specifically built to process high-volume tax and benefits enquiries. On the other hand, Digital Agents are designed to provide general, day-to-day assistance to users.
- Cost – Because of the way Chatbots are targeted, they’re far more cost-effective than Digital Agents. A competent, basic bot for Planning and Building Control for example can be designed, built and integrated into an organisation for around £10,000. Digital Agents are far more costly and are generally considered the preserve of wealthy digital giants. Think Amazon and Alexa, Google and Google Assistant, Apple and Siri, IBM and Watson etc.
Though Chatbots and Digital Agents are certainly different and the terms should not be used interchangeably, they do share several common characteristics and features.
First and foremost, both tools are powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI). This allows them to respond to user inputs in an ‘intelligent’ manner, with the nature of their response largely determined by the parameters set by their designers and the data fed into the AI. The more data fed into a particular AI application, the better it’s able to analyse it for trends and patterns and the more intelligently it is able to act.
Both Chatbots and Digital Agents are also designed to engage and communicate with human users. This means that both are built with a focus on understanding, analysing and using human language.
Additionally, both technologies are orientated towards productivity. One of their key functions is to make the users’ life easier by streamlining certain tasks. This is in contrast to other AI applications that may prioritise other functions. For instance, AI is currently being developed to provide medical care. There are also AI tools designed to offer companionship and play a social role. These differ significantly from contemporary Chatbots and Digital Agents.
Beyond these factors, there are a number of other minor characteristics shared by both technologies. These include:
- The ability to provide a 24/7/365 service
- Their ability to grow, improve and develop as they’re used more frequently
- Their reliance on sophisticated AI tools, such as Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Sentiment Analysis
There is a tendency to pit Chatbots against Digital Agents in a battle for supremacy. People want to take sides and argue about which is superior and which will eventually emerge triumphant.
This misses the point entirely.
Chatbots and Digital Agents have different functions and excel in different ways. What’s important is that you chose the most suitable technology for the context. Investing in a digital agent because you want to automate a relatively small number of high-volume customer enquiries is over the top. The level of investment required is not proportional to the resulting savings and improvements in service. Likewise, if you want an AI tool that can interact with all your digital devices across a home network, a Chatbot would not suffice.
In this guide, we’ve attempted to provide you with a comprehensive account of the strengths of both Chatbots and Digital Agents. We hope that this will help you make an informed decision as to which is best suited to your organisation’s needs.