Facebook Welcomes ‘Chat Bots’ to Its Messenger App

April 12, 2016, 6:48 PM UTC

As expected, Facebook bots are coming.

After opening up its chat app Messenger to businesses last year, Facebook is now letting them build bots for the service, said co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday at the company’s annual developer conference F8 in San Francisco. Brands and companies will be able to build small artificial intelligence software programs that interact with Messenger users.

“Last year, Messenger was the fastest growing app, ahead of even Facebook, which was second,” boasted Zuckerberg, inciting a laugh from the audience. The Messenger app now has 900 million monthly active users, up from 800 million in January, the social network revealed last week. Currently, more than one billion messages are sent between businesses and users via the app, Facebook’s top brass added on Tuesday.

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Over the last few months, Facebook has announced a string of partnerships with a handful of companies, including Uber, Lyft, and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Now, the social media brand counts more than 40 partners for Messenger, such as CNN, eBay, Walmart, Spring, the NBA, JackThreads, Zulily, Spotify, Zynga, and 1-800-Flowers, among others.

Through Messenger’s Send/Receive software tool, now available to developers, businesses can build bots that not only send and receive text, but also images, emoji, and other rich content such as product carousels to let users browser merchandise options from a retailer, for example.

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“I can guarantee you’re going to spend a lot more money than you think,” quipped Facebook Messenger’s chief, David Marcus, said after an on-stage demo of shopping service Spring’s bot.

Other tools Facebook is releasing include a discovery engine, a customer matching feature powered by Twilio for enabling businesses to respond via Messenger to customers with phone numbers on record, and a bot engine for training them, powered by Wit.ai, a startup Facebook acquired last year.

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To ensure users don’t get overwhelmed by spammy bots, Facebook is adding user controls, including the ability to block bots from which consumers don’t want to hear.

Rumors of Facebook’s chat bot store first appeared in January when a software kit for building bots in Messenger surfaced.

Though it’s been greatly anticipated, Facebook is far from the first to introduce a chat bot store for its messaging app.

Last week, Kik unveiled one, and Telegram has had one since last year. On the enterprise side, workplace chat service Slack has had bots integrated into the communication hub for a while, while Microsoft (MSFT) recently unveiled a set of software tools to let developers built bots for its own services, like Skype and Cortana.