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Fighting coronavirus, govt and companies arm chatbots to share verified information with Indians

Governments and companies are relying on chatbots to provide Indians with verified information about the coronavirus and covid-19.

twitter-logo Roshni Majumdar   New Delhi     Last Updated: March 31, 2020  | 13:11 IST

Highlights

  • Chatbots are helping people get answers to their coronavirus queries.
  • Government and companies have launched chatbots in the form of an app or a service to share coronavirus information.
  • Chatbots are launched by big companies like WhatsApp as well as telecom companies like Jio and Airtel.

A series of apps and bots have lately emerged to tackle a surge in demand for information about the coronavirus. The Indian government launched a WhatsApp chatbotcalled the MyGov Corona Helpdeskto help users with verified information on the chat app that has gained notoriety for the circulation of unverified information in the country. Just days ago, Facebook, WhatsApp's parent company, launched a COVID-19 chatbot on its messenger, as well. The COVID-19 chatbot answers questions in both English and Hindi.

Telecom companies too have joined the bandwagon. Last week, Reliance Jio launched a chatbot -- a symptoms tracker-- which assesses the possibility of an individual coming down with the virus. Following Jio's footsteps, Bharti Airtel partnered with Apollo hospitals to launch Apollo247.com, also available on the Airtel app. Once a user answers some simple questions regarding travel history and her/his health, the chatbots predict whether a user is at high or low risk, and whether she/he should take the COVID-19 test. That there are this many numbers of apps now available online, and the number of chatbots available to answers queries, is telling.

Chatbots-- there are many different types of bots, which are AI software that complete a task without the help of a human being-- are useful because they are way faster than human beings and don't get tired of answering the same questions over and over again. Since chatting has been a core part of our -- the digitally native audience's -- communication, there's been an emphasis on making the bots sound human. Sure, they can't pick up on sarcasm, but integrating soft features-- like an emoji or the tone in which they respond to the user -- is fast becoming the norm. That means, we're lending bots human-like personality.

Megha Kowdley, a conversational chatbot designer, points out how much difference the personality of a bot can have on the user. If you log on to Apollo247. com, the chatbot is friendly. The user, though is asking frantic questions about the coronavirus, is likely going to feel calm while talking to the bot. Other businesses, for example, banks, will look at their chatbots differently. They will likely stay away from too much use of humor.

In fact, chatbots can become relationship builders as they will likely draw people to the company. There is a competition, called the Loebner Prize, where judges rank rival chatbots from most humanlike to least humanlike. There's also another reason why chatbots can be very useful. Joel John, who studies the future of work, says chatbots can be very powerful in yet another way -- by connecting people to accurate persons via helplines available on the chatbot. That, he says, is where the real power of technology lies, especially in terms of connecting people in rural towns and villages to doctors online. Of course, there are many other things that have helped launched the avalanche of chatbots today.

One, it's hard for small businesses to reach a lot of people easily. Now that WhatsApp has rolled out its API, verified businesses have been able to reach citizens in the country on it. Haptik, the Reliance subsidiary that powered the central government's coronavirus-related chatbot, took four days to build the chatbot from scratch to finish. The CEO of the company, Aakrit Vaish, already had expertise. They had launched a WhatsApp chatbot -- Coronavirus Helpdesk -- to stem misinformation on the platform in early February.

But now, time was of essence. Then, on March 27, Goa became one of the first states to launch a self-assessment COVID-19 app. The state government has partnered with a health tech companyInnovaccer, Inc that is based in San Francisco. It is similar to other apps in that a user can self-assess her or his level of risk. What's important and helps in changing the outcomes, says Kanav Hasija, co-founder of the company, is keeping it simple, scalable, and useful with information on which people can take action and take it fast.

Chatbots are fast becoming one way for businesses -- as they stare down at the economic upheavals caused by the outbreak -- to stay connected with their customers. Megha says that companies -- even those who're not in the health tech field -- are now deploying chatbots to direct users to relevant information about coronavirus. The chatbot doesn't know that, but it will get the job done anyway.

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