Soon you’ll be able to order pizza by chatbot

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Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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In the very near future, you might just be singing—to a chatbot—for your supper.

The number of companies deploying chatbots to interact with their customers has been on the rise since Facebook in August allowed anyone to customize bots for its Messenger app. Food companies are jumping on the trend: In July, Whole Foods Market unveiled a chatbot that allows customers to find and brainstorm recipes. Now, TGI Fridays and Pizza Hut are getting in on the action, building models of consumer interaction that will have people texting in real time with a robot about what they’re craving to eat.

The chatbots will perform only rudimentary functions at first. In the case of TGI Fridays, potential customers will be able to query the chatbot about the nearest restaurant location, get details about specific dishes by sending emojis (texting a shrimp emoji will get you information about the sriracha shrimp roll), and make reservations. Pizza Hut’s chatbot will answer questions about the day’s specials.

The idea is to give people another way to engage with brands, but there’s a definitely a generational component behind the rising number of chatbots on the market. For people who grew up texting and sending instant messages, the chatbot experience is almost instinctual—especially compared to customized mobile apps, says Ben Lamm, co-founder of Conversable, which is building chatbot services for Whole Foods, Pizza Hut, and TGI Fridays.

“There’s no learning with it, it’s almost an inherently natural behavior,” Lamm says. ”When you download an app, you kind of have to learn it.” Lamm is betting that chatbots are the next frontier of customer engagement. Indeed, some of these services, such as the artificial intelligence-powered chatbot Ozlo, are backed with upwards of $14 million in venture capital funding.

Tech companies and corporate brands still have their work cut out for them, though. Already people have found some chatbot services to be a nuisance because of unwanted spam. Striking a happy medium of engagement will be the trick.