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Ever since the pioneering mathematician and computer scientist, Alan Turing, posed the question of whether computers would be able to think in the future, people have sought to make the dream of artificial intelligence (AI) a reality. Nowadays, there are all sorts of AI applications which are capable of doing anything from playing the foreign exchange markets to calculating the best route home based on live data collation. Another big application for AI systems is chatbot technology. Lots of commercial websites you might visit these days have a chatbot which aims to respond meaningfully to people’s questions and queries.
From a commercial point of view, it is easy to see why a business might want to utilise AI chatbots to respond to customers, to point them in the right direction and even process orders, in some cases. By automating your customer service function in such a way, even if that is currently limited to website deployment, it means being able to operate with fewer staffing costs, especially if the website can thereby handle enquiries 24/7 to a global audience.
Increasingly, chatbots are being accepted by the public as something that is not a mere novelty but which can be genuinely helpful. After all, the point about any AI system is that it should get better the more it ‘learns’. With more data from the sort of questions it is asked and greater awareness of the way in which enquiries are satisfactorily resolved, so chatbots can start to predict what they need to do more accurately. In some cases, they can sometimes become faster and more efficient than human interfaces.
These days, there are two main types of chatbot technology in use. The first is the voice-based virtual assistant type of bot. Examples of this sort of technology are Alexa, made by Amazon, and Google’s Assistant. The other type makes use of messaging apps whereby you type questions and receive answers via a dialogue box. This type is commonly found on commercial websites either to provide post-sales support or to direct would-be clients to the right department. Chatbots can be deployed within existing messaging apps which are used for human-to-human communications, too, such as WeChat and Facebook’s Messenger service.
Alongside the general e-commerce applications of chatbots, there are some which are developed for specific sectors. Some focus on analytics whilst others are devoted to education. Chatbots designed to improve productivity exist as do those which are specifically for travel, shopping, health and marketing. Given that chatbot technology is now widespread whilst also becoming ever-more specialised, it is hardly surprising that the museum sector is now making use of it for certain purposes. How are museums deploying chatbots and what is the future of them within the sector?
When it comes to the creative use of chatbots, museum professionals have shown themselves to be highly inventive in many institutions around the world. There are numerous examples of chatbots sitting on the home pages of museums’ websites, for instance. In this regard, museums are not much different in their roll-out of the technology than, say, your average high street bank’s website. However, due to the often unique nature of museums, other ingenious ideas have been dreamed up where chatbots are now helping.
In some cases, museums have used chatbots to offer enhanced support to visitors and to provide a similar level of assistance when the museum is closed, offering an out-of-hours enquiry service about opening hours, special exhibitions, visitor information and so on. There again, some museums have made use of chatbots to provide an extended visitor experience. This might be to offer additional information on exhibits or to provide context to artefacts. Crucially, of course, the AI element of chatbots means that the sort of context provided can be adapted to the particular whims or preferences of the visitor concerned, whether they are historical or cultural.
There again, some chatbots have been deployed by museums to gamify the visitor experience. This has been used for adults before but it is particularly aimed at youngsters so they can explore the museum via a game or trail laid out for them by the chatbot in order to make visiting more fun and educational in the process. In addition, museums have been at the forefront of developing ‘personalities’ for their bots, so they don’t just chat and provide information but do it in a certain style, one that can even have a ‘face’ that makes them more appealing to users.
This poignant museum in Amsterdam offers visitors the chance to view Anne Frank’s home during the years she and her family were hiding there from Nazi persecution. It also provides visitors with a wider historical experience that discusses the holocaust more fully. In 2017, the museum launched a chatbot which aimed to provide visitors with more information on the life story of Anne Frank. The bot makes use of the common Messenger app and means that contextualising information can be supplied in the museum without the need for information display boards, thereby keeping the house in a much closer state to that which it was in during the Second World War.
In addition to the extra information the chatbot provides about Frank and her family, it offers practical visitor information. Crucially, the chatbot deployed by the museum uses deep learning technology known as msg.ai which allows it to offer a one-to-one tailored response to visitors by ‘remembering’ the sort of successful responses it has given in the past. For example, if someone asks the bot about the history of Anne Frank, the chatbot will not simply produce a biography of her life and murder but ask the questioner to hone in on which aspect of her history they’d like to know about, whether they are interested in the wider context of the war, her life before the Nazi invasion or her time spent in hiding, for example. The AI used in the bot is able to operate even when visitors don’t respond in complete sentences and put their enquiries in note form instead.
According to the professionals at Anne Frank’s House, the chatbot does not just make the visit there a fuller experience but it opens up the entire world’s history to exploration. This type of extending chatbot technology takes the experience of Frank’s life and prompts visitors to find out more about persecution in other forms around the world, including the genocides which have been committed since the end of the Second World War.
In 2018, the Field Museum in Chicago decided that the best way to introduce a new exhibit was to use chatbot technology for the first time. This was because it was due to show off its cast of the largest dinosaur ever discovered, known as Máximo, and it wanted to make a splash. Professionals at the museum had prior experience with digital engagement for its dinosaur exhibits. Since 2009, its famous Tyrannosaurus Rex exhibit had had its own Twitter account which had gained well over 50,000 followers. However, with the arrival of Máximo, the Social Media Manager at the museum, Katharine Uhrich, decided another approach would be needed for its titanosaur.
“Twitter is so perfect for a sassy T Rex,” Uhrich said. “But it is not so suited to this large, lumbering herbivore.” A different strategy meant considering all of the options. Therefore, Uhrich along with Caitlin Kearney, the digital content and engagement manager at the museum, hit upon the idea of a chatbot which would deploy AI technology to breathe life into the massive dinosaur. The pair decided that their chatbot would not merely offer transactional information based on the questions that would be asked of it but have its own personality.
A small team went out to the museum floor to test their ideas with a visitor activity that used nothing more technologically advanced than a set of cards. This allowed them to work out the sort of queries that might be put to the bot and the way in which one question would lead to another. For the tech side, they appointed a web development agency. As Uhrich put it, the idea is to work towards being able to answer an infinite number of questions. Although the standard information that might be asked, such us how big Máximo is and what his diet might be, needed to be worked out, the use of a chatbot also meant being able to ask less easy to guess at enquiries. “How do you create the sort of responses that can capture those more vague questions?” Uhrich said. “You need some really specific responses if a five-year-old is asking ‘What does your poop look like?’” In short, the project involved developing ways of handling all sorts of enquiries.
During the testing phase, the team at the Field Museum found that one of the key problems was that not all visitors had the right Messenger app installed on their smartphone. This meant they altered tack so that more people would be able to chat to Máximo. In addition, Uhrich and Kearney found that early engagement with other museum professionals, especially those without their digital communications background, was essential for making the chatbot really work.
Based in New York City, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum has been a champion of deploying chatbot technologies in the museum sector. Back in 2013, museum professionals there came up with the novel Object Phone, a voice-based system powered by Twillio, which responded to questions about museum artefacts. Object Phone eventually allowed visitors to text as well as call to ask for more information on any object that caught their eye.
Three years later, the Object Phone model was altered significantly. It became a subscriber-based service which meant that anyone with a subscription was able to receive a daily update about an exhibit in the museum. These days, users are able to put more complicated and nuanced questions to the chatbot behind Object Phone directly. Crucially, when there are occasions that the chatbot does not have sufficient data to respond accurately to a query, then the question is sent on to a dedicated museum team where real museum staff will put a response together. These replies are consequently channelled back to the questioner via the chatbot interface. What’s more, because of the system’s AI functionality, the system continues to acquire more and more knowledge from these responses that it can use to formulate its own answers down the line in ever greater complexity.
The Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh developed a gamified chatbot when they first deployed the technology in 2018. The museum institute developed something entirely unique in the form of Andy CarnegieBot. This chatbot not only had a distinct personality that made it readily accessible to visitors but it organised a game for attendees to get involved with across the institute’s four sites. By using Facebook Messenger, the team behind the bot were able to generate digital stamps which visitors could collect when they headed to the relevant parts of the museums.
Andy CarnegieBot was initially developed for the summer of 2018 but it now keeps subscribers updated with museum events and the various ways that visitors can engage with one-off museum activities. Andy, the character behind the bot has a distinctive look which has helped the Carnegie Museums to develop their visual branding. The bot’s developers relied on in-museum signage to introduce visitors to the service and say that they chose Messenger to run it because it meant they did not need to spend lots of resources developing their own AI.
There are plenty of museums and galleries which have put their toe in the water with chatbot technologies but when they have really committed to it, a whole series of advantages have been found. After all, it is not merely about offering visitors another way of discovering information that they could obtain elsewhere. It is about providing a service that enhances the museum experience for visitors, allowing them to focus on the areas of greatest interest to them whilst prompting thoughts in entirely new areas that may not have been explored before.
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.
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