Building your own chatbot is a lot easier than you'd expect

Dexter lets you build a bot as simple or as complex as you want, and it's super easy to get started.

Three of the undisputed kings of technology -- Microsoft, Facebook and Google -- all bet big on bots in 2016. It's too early to say whether that was a good move, but if nothing else it's clear that bots haven't seen mainstream adoption yet. If you're a believer in the technology and want to start building your own bots before everyone is doing the same, the just-launched Dexter platform might be worth checking out. I'm no coder, but a quick demo had me building some very simple and pointless bots -- but nonetheless, I was building within minutes.

The basic Dexter interface isn't dissimilar to Wordpress or any other blogging platform you might have tried. There's a large main composing window with some toolbars up top and off to the sides. To get started, type in an example of what the user says to the bot -- to keep it simple, you can just start with "hello," or a variety of salutations ("hello," "hi," "sup"). Then, you decide what the bot will say in response. In this case, I went with the Lionel Ritchie classic "Is it me you're looking for?"

There's a window on the right that you can test the code in and make sure you're getting the responses you wanted, and then it's just a matter of hitting publish. For starters, Dexter lets you publish a bot to Slack, Facebook Messenger or SMS. That's all it really takes to get a bot up and running.

Of course, the bot I wrote is basically useless, but at least it introduced me to some basic concepts. From there, I started experimenting. I made a bot that responded to "Engadget is awesome" by saying "Thanks!" and dropping a link to our homepage. It also would drop an amusing "flipping the bird" image in response to any message that had the word "sucks" in it.

My ambitions grew from there. The idea I had was a bot that would reply with the latest story published to Engadget when you asked it for the latest news. Unfortunately, the Dexter tool necessary for this wasn't live just yet, but I was told you'd soon be able to point your bot at an RSS feed for something like this.

I had to content myself with making a bot that dropped a picture of a cute dog or cat depending on which you asked to see. Dropping images, links and other media in response to queries is exceedingly simple. It's basically like using HTML code.

If you want to build anything more complicated than the silly bots I made, you'll obviously need to invest more time. But the thing I liked the most about Dexter was how easy it was to dive right in and also how quickly I started to imagine things to do beyond just the basic tutorials. The good news is if you want to start trying to make your own bot, it's free for starters -- but if you start attracting an audience, it won't be free forever. Still, the combo of free and easy was compelling enough to make me think about trying to build something a bit more sophisticated than a bot that just drops a picture of a dog on demand.

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