Many pundits far and wide talk about how our newest technologies will be eliminating millions of jobs. Artificial Intelligence (AI) mostly, in addition to other new tech, for some reason to many, feels different.
There was a recent article on an experiment in The New Scientist which explored human/robot interaction.
They took three rooms of people and put a friendly robot in one room that hung out with them and was very funny and friendly and really helpful to the people in the room. They took another room and they put in a stern robot, a not so friendly robot, a serious robot. Then in the third room, they put no robot at all. They acted friendly or stern prior to the test, once the test started they just sat in the corner and didn’t say anything.
Have We Created Too Much To Handle?
Pity the poor human – we start off with an amazing memory, a sponge-like ability to observe and learn, with sharp senses of vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, then over time, they develop into a height, then slowly taper off as we age.
Pity especially the memory – back 10-20-50-100 years ago, in any of those time frames, our big human brain was able to absorb and process the trickle of information from all sources – newspapers, books, journals allowed you to absorb information at your own speed – some read faster than others. We then invented electronic communications, like the radio and TV, where we had to absorb information at the speed at which it was delivered, but only at the time that it was delivered.
The first kind of mass market interactive devices were video games, which, while providing some control over the results, gave us humans some control over the process of the interaction. Eventually, VCRs and Tivo-like devices allowed us to control when we would watch the TV that was broadcast to us. As time progressed, we both got more control over what we could absorb and when, and exponentially more content to absorb.
Since the commercialization of the internet, we’ve seen blogs, podcasts and YouTube (among others) increase the amount of “stuff out there” by orders of a magnitude never before seen. Now we can even control the speed at which we absorb things – my audiobook player can play things as slow as ¾ speed and as fast as 3x speed (too fast for me!) With all of this, is it any wonder that we’re distracted?
Take everything else in life and work – the multitude of things we now need to remember to do. Living life itself has become incredibly complex – the number of adult children living at home, afraid of becoming adults, with full adult responsibility is at an all-time high. Is part of this because life has become overwhelming?
For those who are out there, we can barely keep up with the disruption of life – there are not many areas in one’s life which haven’t suffered some disruption – the recession of 2008 have disrupted the flow of work, turning career employees into gig economy hustlers, taking whatever work that they can, whenever they can. We no longer have fixed incomes – just try getting a mortgage when all you can provide a lender is a sheaf of 1099s from several different companies.
Many young adults are unable to afford to buy homes, or in some extremely expensive centers, unable to even afford to live in their own apartments, barely able to cover the costs of sharing a space with roommates. In some places, a single income will no longer allow you to live on your own. Tracking and managing your income, your time, your professional and private lives, are left to wanting tools like Google Calendar, Outlook or paper notebooks.
We are awash in to do lists, calendars, schedules, emails, social media posts, instant messages, apps, all clamoring for our attention. Has this ever happened to you – your pop up notifications are so numerous that your phone rarely doesn’t vibrate? This flood of inputs is just overwhelming, and since most of us in desperate fear of FOMO, we attempt to absorb everything, but there is no possible way that we can.
We regularly take our most effective time of day and waste it in doing bullshit work, and then try to do our best work when we are tired and flooded with pointless trivia from clickbait (See 5 Ways To Have Sex With Your Apple iPhone)
Underneath, we are all the same curious kids that we were when we were born – we WANT to know everything, all the time, but the stream of constant information in all forms, competing for our attention, attempting to entice us and outrage us so we can consume more, has simply become too much for all of us to process. There is just too much that we need to know, do, and be, and we poor humans have yet to evolve to the point where we can do this.
We need help.
But what kind of help? We can, if we wish to, simply decide to switch things off, cut ourselves off from the world, mentally go back to the world before the internet. There are trends towards minimalism, meditation, disconnecting ourselves from the world. Even partially disconnecting from the world is not an answer, as any connection is so compelling, that you get sucked back into it. But is it possible to disconnect yourself completely from the world, for the world has now become our interface with others over the internet?
If you ask me, there is only one solution – we need robust, intelligent, virtual assistants to help us.
As we go through life, we experience it. And as we experience it, we make decisions to take on things that we need to do, actions that we need to take. As the world floods over us, we filter and capture an infinitesimally small portion of it, then decide to act on it. It’s simply too much.
However, if we had a virtual automated assistant to help us filter the world, help us to capture what is important to us and for us to do, and even do some of the little stuff for us, would that not help?
In the democratization of the internet, in giving the ability for any human on the planet to connect with every human on the planet (an awesome thing) we’ve also created an overwhelming amount of content. We need systems to help us puny humans to sort and manage this content, tell us what is important to us, and help us to manage our world.
The world has become far too complex to be managed by ourselves alone – we need to design and build assistants who can help. We are at the very beginning of this – and its, therefore, the perfect time to focus on this – and if you ask me this is the most important problem we need to solve today – to create a useful, human helping bot which can help us to be better humans. There is no other way.
Like the digital twin in that “Greta cookie” episode of Black Mirror (great series although a bit pessimistic about the future), you know the one, where they use a technology called a “cookie”, which is implanted in your head and creates a digital copy of you over time, learning about the way you act based on observing your actions over time. Of course, the episode gets dark after that, but I see no ethical downside to creating a digital version of yourself, designed to act in a similar way to you, and setting it to task performing all the dull stuff you’d rather not do, or aren’t very good at.
I’ve said before that we all spend a lot of our days doing mundane things that barely tax our amazing human brains. Would it not be great that something like a digital twin – which acts like our own personal virtual assistant – could take care of all of the boring stuff we have to do in our days, thus freeing us up to think the big thoughts?
Sure, maybe a full-on replica of ourselves might be too much to ask for right now, but what about creating a sub-set of ourselves? We could spin off various sub-selves to do all manner of things to save us time – creating these intelligent virtual versions of ourselves focused on a single task or two.
For example, let’s say that I’m terrible at remembering birthdays and anniversaries. would it be so terrible to create a sub-set personality bot of myself which remembers dates, and selects and sends proper greetings and gifts when required? Maybe you create the bot online and like the cookie or Nest – it self-learns my communication patterns – when and how I connect and communicate with people, how I remember things and send gifts etc. After a few days or weeks, it’s become a version of me, but only in regard to dates, messages, and gifts.
Once its more or less defined my actions, I then go in and “revise” it to be better than me. I tell it what dates to remember (and it never forgets as it’s not a fallible human) and what kind of messages to send, and what price range of gifts to get depending on the social strength of the connection. It then goes off and remembers dates, and after researching awesome messages and gifts that the recipient would appreciate, sends them or has them delivered. All under my name, of course.
My bot makes me a better human, friend, relative and spouse, and it frees me up to spend time with other things. Sure, maybe this example is a little creepy, (and probably better suited for pure introverts) but think of the 100s of mundane things you’d prefer to have someone else do for you.
Wouldn’t you prefer that a part of you – as a sub-set digital twin – be doing it? It’s not so different than delegating an autonomous vehicle to drive for you, or a human virtual assistant to book your meetings and do your internet research for you.
I, for one, welcome our new digital underlings. ?
Conversational Interfaces Are The Most Human
When a human child is born, what are the two most important milestones in their lives? First, they walk, thus proving that they are physically human, and the second, arguably more important one, to talk. The ability to talk, to converse, to vocally and visually interact with other humans, is very important to being human.
Conversation, simple talking, has been around since homo sapiens stood upright. Even at the very beginning, even before formal language, early humans used speech and gestures in order to communicate and converse. One might even say that “I am human, therefore I converse”.
Conversation, discussion, and feedback are key in the development of children into normal human adults, and the maintenance of sanity among adults (for some). The mechanisms of discussion, the speaking and responding, are so powerful, that they permeate our world. They are the roots of everything from music to social networks.
As a child of the 80s, one of my favorite bands was the Talking Heads, but I never really got deeply into them until the album Remain In Light. Prior to that album, the band was what I would call, “near-punk” not quite as pessimistic and violent, but spare and geeky, something that appealed to my outsider teenage soul. To my ears, they were good, but not great.
That is until they decided to completely convert (or some may say subvert) the bands sound by heavily layering in African beats, musicians, and instruments, in the tradition of African musicians like Fela Kuti. It went from a spare foursome of vocals, lead and bass guitar, and drums, to rich, multilayered tapestry of sound. I must have listened to that so often I’m sure that I went through a number of turntable needles. I had to know more about this amazing sound.
To get more info, I read that the group was inspired to research and integrate African rhythms into the music after reading a book called African Rhythms and African Sensibility. Being the new wave music geek that I was at the time, I bought this book and read it myself – and I learned a number of interesting things about music which I’d never known before – the key insight being that most African music, and most music in general, is, in reality, a conversation, and the call and response can be heard in almost all music (if your ears are attuned to listen for it).
Just like conversations we have from childhood, “call and response” runs not only throughout all music, human beings respond to a conversation in general. Humans are social creatures and we primarily communicate through conversation. It’s in everything we do – we tell stories to an audience, expecting responses in laughter, applause, and even groans. We post photos, podcasts, and videos, hoping for some response, good or bad. We live for comments and feedback. One of the worst possible outcomes of posting a blog post, podcasts, a photo on Instagram of a video on YouTube is likes and comments. Getting zero views, likes and comments can be as painful to us conversation craving humans as physical pain.
One could argue that conversation is the most prevalent and important method of communication for the human race – it runs through everything we do.
So its surprising to me that it has taken so long for us to realize that a conversational interface with our machines is not the absolute best interface for almost everything. While I understand that technology is only now beginning to become available to allow us to develop truly useful conversational interfaces, I fully believe that these interfaces will become the future of all interfaces.
With its close ties to being human, conversational interfaces will become the most natural way in which to interface with any machines, for any purpose. These interfaces will start simple (as they are today) but, with enough sophisticated artificial intelligence and predictive analytics behind them, they will not only become our interface to everything, they will be able to proactively assist us at the exact moment that we need assistance, and contextually be able to truly become our helpers and guides (instead of the sometimes annoying, half-deaf and sometimes full dumb machines of today, and you know who I’m talking about, Alexa!).
Conversational interfaces – for entertainment, directing devices, shopping, and e-commerce, calendaring and scheduling, detecting emotions and proactively providing services – will become the most important interface in the near future, and beyond.
The interface of the future is conversational and as such, human.