Talking to strangers on the internet is not always a good idea, but does it make a difference if it’s a computer rather than a human interacting with you?

Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) have seen increasingly sophisticated chatbots appear on our screens. Chatbots are computer programs (often powered by AI) which can mimic human responses to consumer questions. 

Chatbots can be beneficial to online businesses: increasing efficiency, providing 24/7 customer support for basic questions and even promoting brand loyalty by providing new and interesting customer experiences. However, like other solutions built using advanced technology, businesses need to proceed with care when introducing chatbots into their repertoire.

Businesses should advocate transparency when customers are interacting with a chatbot. It should be made clear that they are not communicating with a human. Being up front about this will help to mitigate any complaints if the chatbot malfunctions. Transparency should be maintained on how any data collected by chatbots will be used by the business. This will help to ensure data collection aligns with New Zealand's privacy laws and prevent disputes over who can use and control the information gathered by the chatbot (e.g. if the customer suggests an idea to the chatbot for an improvement of a product, or if the chatbot refers customers to other products based on their responses).

Not to be confused with legitimate friendly chatbots, malicious bots (essentially automated and self-propagating software designed for malicious purposes) also exist on the internet: spreading viruses and attempting to solicit data and money from users.  The anonymity of these bad bots makes it tricky to hold those responsible for them accountable, meaning once your information is collected or your devices or accounts are breached, there is often little you can do about it (enforcement time and cost are the main hurdles here rather than the law).

As AI continues to advance, the ability to mimic humans on the internet will become ever more seamless. Every bot has the potential to go rogue if not properly controlled and monitored, and it seems AI may increase perceptions of 'stranger danger' on the internet. Therefore, when devising chatbots for your business, transparency will go a long way for you and your customers.