Synthetic Intelligence Markup Language SIML

This is part of a series of “Bot Making Tools Assessment” findings from the ‘How To Build A Bot With The Right Kind Of Tools‘ article.

Checkout the rest of the series by following these links:

My Findings

OSCOVA is part of Syn Bot Development Framework developed by Synthetic Intelligence Network.  This development company has been around for a while and their core business is built around providing intelligent automation of selected workflow using pure Artificial Intelligence.

My experience with OSCOVA was initially through a use case where the bot is used for Data Visualization based on excel sheet data (completely offline).  Check out the sample project here .

What I find interesting about the framework was it is .NET compatible and uses a markup language to build the bot intelligence (SIML).  Since I have spent quite a bit of time with Microsoft Bot Framework and LUIS earlier, it easy to understand how everything ties in when crafting the bot’s intelligence model.

If you have read the other three approaches of bot building (Chatbot Building Platforms, Facebook Messenger Platform API & Microsoft Bot Framework), you may notice that most of the “Artificial Intelligence” (AI) magic is done via cloud hosted services, and they have made available trained models to cater for common use cases.  It is also noted that English remains the dominant language for AI at the moment, with other languages gradually being added overtime by these platforms.

From my point of view, OSCOVA addresses the question – “What about uncommon use cases?”:

  • Bot brain that is based on certain language / domain terminology / specialized glossary?
  • Running experimental modals based on special rules / scenarios.
  • Devices with no / limited internet connectivity (e.g. on-premise security devices, mobile phones).
  • Learning how bot intelligence models can be crafted, for educational & research purposes.
  • Separately test the bot’s intelligence without worrying which channel the bot be hosted in.
  • When ownership of the bot intelligence modal is a top priority in the project or business.
  • Applying clear separation of concerns on the bot intelligence model.

The Syn Bot Development Framework comes with the “Syn Bot Studio” desktop application that developers can use to build these custom models and perform unit tests on the bot’s intelligence side of things.  The application is also packed with useful utilities such as a Regular Expression Tester and Javascript console.  The developer forums are also available for additional resources and like-minded developers in the AI domain.

Note that the developer still needs to spend time developing the actual interface for the end user to key in requests.  This could be a mobile or web application, or even Internet Of Things or speech recognition devices.  Connecting to a messaging channel would require additional technical knowledge of the connecting APIs and managing token issuance & API maintenance as well.

Use cases:

  • If you already have a .NET application and want to add some “intelligence” without the “strings” (online connectivity to cloud services), OSCOVA is a viable option because it has a relatively straight-forward API and decoupling of bot logic and business logic.
  • If you are feeling adventurous and want to learn something more advanced, and having ultimate control over how your bot should be thinking, then yes, OSCOVA provides implementation flexibility on the AI level.

A few caveats:

  • Looking up relevant resources via Google search may lead you to samples written for SIML 1.0.  Do note that OSCOVA uses SIML 2.0 (also known as SIML Modern) which is a different specification and elements.
  • SimlBot and OSCOVABot are two different libraries, with OSCOVA being the newer component with architectural difference (hence working with the newer SIML specification) & improved performance.  The developer may choose to actually use both to bridge any gaps in terms of features, but do take special care of memory utilization of your application especially on devices with limited memory.
  • Community Edition is Free (has core engine features and for personal projects). It’s a great option to go for to try stuff out.
  • Developer & Enterprise Licensing is available for full developer support via Email. You may want to consider this option for large scale projects.


Microsoft Bot Builder SDK

This is part of a series of “Bot Making Tools Assessment” findings from the ‘How To Build A Bot With The Right Kind Of Tools‘ article.

Checkout the rest of the series by following these links:

My Findings

Before continuing with this section about the Microsoft Bot Builder SDK, it would be useful to do a quick recap of the difference between a library and a framework .

Basically, Microsoft provides a set of libraries, tools and a portal to help the developer develop the bot.  They also have a pretty good set of design guidelines, technical documentation and sample projects .  So, for developers who prefer “cold steel programming tools” and need this kind of granularity, this is a good option, especially when they are already familiar with the Microsoft development platform and tools.  And guess what, since Microsoft being all Open Source friendly nowadays, NodeJS is also a very much supported preferred development language too.

An added bonus to developing on this framework is the ability to add Artificial Intelligence features by using the LUIS (part of Microsoft’s Cognitive Services).  Plus, if the developer choose to host the bot on Microsoft Azure, everything (including the AI services) are setup in 1 place with central monitoring of API consumption and resource usage.  It also the developer has less worry on service provisioning / API key tracking & hosting performance all round.

Bear in mind that Microsoft’s Cognitive Services actually consists of other nifty tools (Image Recognition, Text Analysis… just to name a few) that the developer can further explore to enhance their bot.  Click here to read more about Cognitive Services and what it has to offer.

Note that the developer will need some knowledge of:

  • Cloud Hosting services to deploy the bot, and setting up Artificial Intelligence services such as LUIS and/or other Cognitive Services.
  • Using the portal to register & publish the bot – the developer must have a basic knowledge on getting the necessary keys and tokens from each of the channels to deploy the bot to.  There are guided instructions on the portal so it is not difficult to follow through.

A few caveats:

  • Since it supports multiple channels, the developer should not expect the bot UI to be the same across different channels “pixel by pixel”.  The framework comes with a bot emulator that can help allows the developer to test “generic” versions of bot components, and that’s it.  It will not render the UI exactly how an end user would see it in the channel.  Check out the differences using the Channel Inspector .
  • This is similar to the problem for mobile developers when developing native applications on iOS and Android (e.g. the application bar is in different places – top or bottom).  Whilst it is still not too bad for mobile developers to “just standardize across the board with standard custom UI design”, for bot developers (unfortunately) this is not possible.  There is no “styling” layer as bot interactions are very tightly coupled with their host channels.
  • Another problem is also the fact that not every channel has the same set of bot components, although it is still possible to workaround this using the ChannelData property .  The developer would need to know the format of the payload of that channel’s component, which means digging through the relevant documentations from the channel’s documentations.

Suggested Use Cases:

  • e-Commerce (e.g. complex data flow and calculations)
  • Bots that have complex logic or flows that require session context / database backend
  • If you want to utilize LUIS or Cognitive Services from Microsoft, integration work is easier on C# .NET Platform.


Facebook Chat API

Read more about my experimentation using the early iterations of the Facebook Messenger API 2 years ago, and what we can look forward to.

How To Build A Bot With The Right Kind Of Tools

An Assessment Of Bot Making Options

In this article, we will explore what exactly do we need to build a Chatbot from a slightly technical perspective.
Warning: There may be sprinkling of technical jargons in this article. As always, Google is always your best friend for further details and illustrated examples.

Introduction & Objective

First, a bit about myself. I am a software engineer who started off my career as a web developer.  Over the course of my career I built up skills in ASP.NET, CSS, HTML and JavaScript.  I do both types of development : front-end and server-side integration.  Therefore, my working knowledge with various tools and frameworks could be considered fair.  In the last 10 years or so, I have also experienced shifting development methodologies and trends.  Seen the rise and fall of various development frameworks due to rapid innovation.  Experiencing all that helps me to provide a unique assessment of the tools I have used before.

Good software developers understand that there is never a tool / framework that is a “one-size fits all”.  This is especially true when considering the use case and the projects that we build the solution for.  There are some unique problems that require careful consideration of what to use, and how to use it.  Otherwise, we might end up in a very difficult situation of not being “flexible enough” to scale or grow.  If you are in a leader position, there are also other things to think of, such as available team skill sets, how easy to learn / run with the technology, and where to find resources or get help when things get tough.

We are now stepping into the age of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.  5 out of 10 articles on the techno-sphere are specifically talking about bots.  Or some variation of the word bot – “intelligent virtual assistants”, “automating ABC”, “smart XYZ” and how it is revolutionizing industries around the world.

So, what exactly is involved in building bots?

How is it different from the normal “code my business logic” way of software development?

Bot Building 101 (Technical Edition)

A bot is hosted on a channel (e.g. Facebook Messenger, Skype, Telegram, Slack).  User types a request to the bot, the bot responds with the right information based on understanding of the request.  Usually the channel forwards the request to a handler which will process what to do next.  Up to this stage, it sounds like a regular Webhook or Web API connection.

How the bot presents the information back to the user is using bot components.  Bot components are very much like the UI aspect of a conversation: text, images, audio, buttons.  Note that each channel provides a different set of components and options through their platform APIs.  From a web development perspective, it sounds just like a server request / response.  However, it is the expectations of what bots are supposed to be able to do that catch many software developers off guard.  (Hint:  It is more than “just presenting information” back to the user)

In fact, the tricky part here is that often the user’s request is expressed in human language.  The developer has to learn to deal with this apart from standard server formats (e.g JSON / any schema based request).  And here is the other part of the bot equation: Artificial Intelligence (e.g “how it understands the request”, or Natural Language Processing – NLP).  The “brain” of the bot does not just contain business logic, but also a (few) model(s) of “intelligence” of the bot.  Basic terminologies used in NLP – Intents, Entities, Session & Context is necessary to get things going if you intend to use one.

(Off-Topic : If you intend to invest a lot more time on the topic of AI, I would suggest to read  what is the difference between Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning & Deep Learning first)

Soft Skills You Might Need

  • Understanding how to communicate concisely with words.
  • It would also help if you have a good command of English as most tools available today are English based.
  • It would also help to understand a bit of communicative UX and user behaviors to craft your bot’s intelligence model.
  • A clear understanding of the business context of what the bot is used for.

The Technical Bits

Some of my personal experience of building bots were using the following approaches:

Some might argue that ManyChat & Chatfuel are not exactly “cold steel programming tools” but I believe that as software developers, we should not discriminate on whether the tool is “hardcore matrix code” or “GUI based tools”.  The more tools we try, the more we understand how the concept works.  Once our mental model is in place, it will make more sense of what each tool offers in terms of functionality.  From then on, you can easily determine the fit for your use case and niche of users.  After all we are all in the business of building solutions to solve a problem.

Feel free to click on the links above to read my findings with each approach.


Below is a summary for your reading pleasure.

  • Chatbot Building Platforms (e.g ManyChat, Chatfuel)
    • Pro:
      • Great for simple use cases.
      • Great documentation and pre-built bot templates.
      • Uses JSON API for integration to external systems.
      • No need to worry about hosting or deployment.
    • Cons:
      • Developers do not have absolute control over the data and performance of the server.
      • If there is a need to do integration to systems that do not have a JSON API, the developer has to build the API themselves to connect.
      • Usually targeted to specific messenger channels.
  • Facebook Messenger Platform API using standard REST calls
    • Pro:
      • Access to the latest features direct from Facebook.  (Even when the feature is still in beta!)
      • Documentation and code samples are available.
    • Cons:
      • Developer may need to put in place REST calls monitoring within their application just in case.
      • Requesting the appropriate App Permissions requires a little more effort from the developer.
      • Strict Policy Guidelines on branding and usage of their API.
      • Not all features are supported worldwide (e.g. Payments).
  • Microsoft Bot Framework
    • Pro:
      • Supports multiple messaging platforms.
      • Integrates with complementary services such as LUIS and Cognitive Framework easily (setup, hosting, monitoring centralized on MS Azure)
      • NodeJS friendly
    • Cons:
      • Bot components are generic versions.  To use channel specific bot components, the Developer needs to know the specific channel’s API payloads.
      • Developer will still need to know how to generate access tokens from the channels to publish and deploy the bot.
      • The framework is currently in PREVIEW, so we don’t actually know how much it will actually cost to host yet when it comes out in GA (General Availability).
  • Standalone Framework – Syn Bot OSCOVA
    • Pro:
      • Markup based Artificial Intelligence modelling tool.
      • Support for offline devices since less dependency on Cloud APIs & Services.
      • Paid License for premium support.
    • Cons:
      • Developer has to implement the bot UI / channel / third party integrations.
      • Other online resources (apart from official website) might feature samples referring to SIML 1.0 instead of SIML 2.0 which OSCOVA uses.


So which should you choose for your first / next Bot project?  The answer is: IT DEPENDS.

Another consideration is the fact that each channel has a specific user base that your bot might want to target.  Hence, deciding on the final approach may not just be a pure “technical decision” after all…

To end this article,

“If you get stuck, draw with a different pen.  Change your tools; it may free your thinking.”

Paul Arden

“I’m not saying being a comedian is brain surgery, but it is definitely – it’s like being a carpenter. You learn how to make tables and chairs. You have to have the right tools, and you have to know how to put the thing together, right?”

Denis Leary

Kindly leave your comments if you like to read more articles like these.