Whatever happened to the human touch? If youbelieve the latest fad from the tech world, it won’t belong before we give up talking to real people andstart talking instead to machines — or “bots”. Or itmight be machines pretending to be people, orpeople pretending to be machines. The permutationsof human and artificial intelligence are about tobecome interesting.


  But if it works as advertised, we will move one step further beyond a world of direct humaninteraction towards a future when screens — and new ways of engaging with computerintelligence — govern much of our lives. For sheer convenience, it will be hard to resist.Less obvious is what might be lost in the process.


  Facebook has just given this trend its biggest lift with the release this week of a way forcompanies to plug their bots into Messenger, its chat system. Want to know the weather? Aska question and an intelligent agent will answer. Interested in buying something? Bots on handwill show you the latest offers and guide you through to the checkout.


  If people take to the idea, entire call centres could be rendered obsolete. Why hold on waitingfor a human when you can get an immediate response from a bot on your smartphone? Thecall-centre reps are operating from scripts anyway and these are interactions that could beprogrammed into a piece of software.


  Whether the bots catch on will depend on not stretching the technology beyond its limits.Microsoft’s wayward chatbot Tay, the algorithm pretending to be an adolescent girl thatstarted spouting racist comments on Twitter, is Exhibit A for what can go wrong. Most artificialintelligence is not very intelligent and when the main technique for training the new systemsinvolves something called machine learning, it turns out that machines can be taught badbehaviour as well as good.


  Not that the chatbots on Facebook are about to have a mind of their own and turn rogue.Most take a very limited approach to AI, using machine learning to “understand” thequestions being put to them and returning largely pre-scripted answers. They try to identify aneed, then draw you down a chain of conversation to a result.


  Deeper levels of intelligence will also be on tap. But it is as likely to involve a human brain asone made from silicon. M, another Facebook chat service, relies on real people sitting in thebackground, returning answers, though to the user, it is not at all clear whether information isbeing generated by a person or a computer. As the machines become smarter they will takeover more of the responses, eventually pushing human workers out of the loop altogether.


  The prospect of another layer of human interaction being lost to technology is bound to bringa pang of regret, not to mention a wave of concern about the impact on jobs. But then, whowould want to give up ATMs and go back to queueing up for a bank teller? Most people won’tmind at all when the days of call-centre queueing have receded into history.