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TfL develops artificial intelligence app on Facebook Messenger

Transport for London has begun using chatbots on Facebook Messenger to provide a level of automated customer service

Transport for London (TfL) has developed an intelligent agent-based chatbot on Facebook’s artificial intelligence (AI) application programming interface (API).

The social media TravelBot is digital travel assistant that can be accessed through Facebook’s Messenger app. It uses artificial intelligence to provide live bus arrival information, tube and rail service updates and maps.

According to TfL, it can “chat” with customers using Messenger and instantly tell them when their bus is due to arrive, provide service updates and tube maps.

The use of AI-powered bots is set to grow, particularly in sectors such as retail and financial services, to support customer interactions.

In October 2016, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) begun using IBM Watson technology to provide a robot to answer customer questions and pass requests on to the right agents.

Analysts believe chatbots are at a very early stage of development, with today’s successful chatbots are driven more by keywords than by machine learning. Forrester senior analyst, Xiaofeng Wang, recently blogged that, in the future, advances in AI will move the potential of chatbots from “question and answer” to “human-like”.

In TfL’s case, the TravelBot can also link directly to a customer service agent, adding that as people use the service, it will “learn” and become even more precise.

TfL said it would explore the possibility of further features in the future, including providing journey planning information and status alerts.

Read more about chatbots and AI

Shashi Verma, TfL’s director of customer experience, said: “Millions of people already use our Journey Planner and social media channels to help them get around London, and we are constantly seeking new ways to make the process even easier. 

“This TravelBot will make it simpler for people using Messenger to get the information they need as they move around the city. We think that this initial version will be a major step forward in how we provide travel information to our customers, and we look forward to their feedback to help us improve the product over time.”

Facebook introduced a bot API as part of Messenger in April 2016. According to some experts, Facebook’s AI is a long way behind its nearest competitors such as Google and Microsoft.

Research from analyst Radio Free Mobile found that Facebook has a challenge with AI, such as the ability to identify fake news. “These have to be fixed, otherwise providing customised services to 1.8 billion users manually will be cripplingly expensive,” its Mobile ecosystem report noted.

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