It’s not us, it’s them: Tech must learn to talk to humans

It’s not us, it’s them: Tech must learn to talk to humans

Like many of us working in technology, I grew up envisioning a world in which everything was digital, connected, and brimming with possibilities. Robots would talk to us and each other, cars would fly through cities, and all our meals would come in pill form. And just a few short years ago, buzz around the Internet of Things made it seem like this world of the future was just around the corner.

Machine-to-machine communication and connected devices were touted as unstoppable forces of disruption and opportunity as investors, journalists, and early adopters eagerly anticipated the imminent fully digitized world that science-fiction has been promising us for years. Startups formed to pump out every sort of connected device you could possibly want (as well as several no one could possibly want). The future was going to be so bright, we thought we’d all need bluetooth shades.

Alas, the buzz was all sizzle and no steak. Amidst the overabundance of talking refrigerators and bluetooth dog collars, people started to step back and wonder whether they were really needed. Sure, the technology in a smart toaster seems fun, but how useful is it really? Perhaps these were just too early to market or lacked sensible communication design. But the question remained: Was this technology designed for the sake of technology, or to actually improve people’s lives?

In the past few months we’ve seen something of a renaissance in the smart space. Late last year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg demoed Jarvis, his personal AI system, which seemed like the beginning of a modern marriage of AI and smart devices. Meanwhile, products like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant have reignited a sense of possibility that these devices could revolutionize our connected lives.

But superior technology alone will not be enough to prevent a second smart collapse. This time, we must develop a greater understanding of how we interact with those devices and what makes for an enjoyable exchange. The success of nearly any product lies in its ease of use. This holds for anything from a toothbrush to a car to a computer program. The original iPod is famous for its design that was so simple but conveyed precisely enough information for owners to understand and use it correctly. If something is too complicated to use on the other hand, most people simply won’t use it, no matter how good it claims to be (HBO’s Silicon Valley provides an excellent example of this).

With the recent proliferation of bots and virtual assistants, we’ve seen major strides in natural language processing that has enabled them to understand most things we say (consider how much better Siri has become since its 2011 launch). However, recent investments have generally focused on enhancing the input capabilities of a smart device (getting Alexa to understand what I’m saying), but relatively little on the output (Alexa communicating back to me in an optimal way). If we become too preoccupied with getting our devices to understand us, we risk neglecting to teach them how to communicate with us as individuals. This could be a grave mistake.

Whether you’re a hipster in Brooklyn, office-worker in Japan, or Beyoncé, assistants such as Siri and Alexa talk to you in the exact same way. That seems like a problem to me. If Siri is supposed to be as truly helpful as Alfred Pennyworth, shouldn’t it should speak to me differently than it speaks to my son or grandmother? If you were talking to those three people, you’d probably communicate with each of them in a different way — shouldn’t our “smart” technologies do the same? The simple and unfortunate truth is that they aren’t personalized yet, but that must change — the success of smart devices depends on it.

I’m considering smart devices and bots to be one category, since both are using technology to enhance normal things or interactions in our lives through technology (especially AI, ML and NLP). They both promise exciting and sweeping changes to our daily lives, but they all risk missing the critical key of effective communication. It will no longer be enough for a device to understand what we are saying. For something to truly understand us, it might be able to not only process my commands, but know how to respond in a way that’s meaningful to me. You would only say that your friend understands you if they can not only hear what you are saying, but also respond in a way that’s personal and real. We should hold our technology to the same standards.

To be fair, this is a difficult task. Tech giants such as Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft have begun wading into the waters of personalized communications, though we remain in the early stages of much of this development. Truthfully speaking, I envision this problem to remain unsolved for quite some time, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set ourselves in the right direction for future success. Unless we are smart about teaching our bots the right things AND the right way to communicate with us, we will likely find ourselves in a world surrounded by ineffective devices, hampered by their own poor design.

We might all be hoping for the gadget-filled utopian future of The Jetsons, but, if we’re not careful, we might find ourselves in something that looks a lot more like the Skynet-run dystopian world of The Terminator.

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