Some people tell me that I am a pessimist when it comes to technology. Maybe, but part of my job is troubleshooting the future before the future requires troubleshooting. As I have said many times before, I think there are some amazing technologies out there that sound promising and exciting. One that caught my attention this week is the voice interface operating system. If you saw the film Her, then you know of that which I speak. For many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, it has been the Holy Grail for some time. A recent WIRED magazine article by David Pierce highlights some of the advancements that are on the cusp of being part of our everyday lives.
Pierce tells how in 1979 during a visit to Xerox PARC, Steve Jobs was blown away by something called a graphic user interface (GUI). Instantly, Jobs knew that the point, click and drag interface was for the masses.
One of the scientists in that Xerox PARC group was a guy named Ron Kaplan who tells Pierce that, “‘The GUI has topped out,’ Kaplan says. ‘It’s so overloaded now.’”
I guess I can relate. Certainly it is a challenge to remember the obscure keyboard commands for every program that you use. One of my mainstays, Autodesk Maya, has so many keyboard options that there is a whole separate interface of hotkeys and menus accessed by (another) keyboard command. Rarely, except for the basics like cut, paste, and delete are these commands or menus the same between software.
If there were a voice interface that could navigate these for you, (perhaps only when you’re stumped), it would be a great addition. But the digital entrepreneurs racing in this direction, according to Pierce are going much further. They are looking, “to create the best voice-based artificial-intelligence assistant in the world.”
The article mentions one such app called Hound. It not only answers questions faster than Siri but with remarkably less overt information. For example, you could ask two different questions about two different places and then ask, “How many miles between those two?” It reads between the lines and fills in the gaps. If it could see, I’m guessing it could read a graphic novel and know what’s going on.
Apparently there are quite a few well-funded efforts racing in this direction. As Pierce says,
“It’s a classic story of technological convergence: Advances in processing power, speech recognition, mobile connectivity, cloud computing, and neural networks have all surged to a critical mass at roughly the same time. These tools are finally good enough, cheap enough, and accessible enough to make the conversational interface real—and ubiquitous.”
That’s just one of the reasons why I think Kurzweil is probably right in his Law of Accelerating Returns. (You can read about it on Kurzweil’s site of read a previous blog – one of many). Convergence is the way technology leaps forward. Supporting technologies enable formerly impossible things to become suddenly possible.
Pierce goes on to talk about a gadget called Alexa, which is now a device known as Amazon Echo, which uses something called Alexa Voice Service. The Echo is a, a black tube with flashing blue LEDs designed to sit in some central location in your space. There, it answers questions and assists in your everyday life. Pierce got to live with the beta version.
“In just the seven months between its initial beta launch and its public release in 2015, Alexa went from cute but infuriating to genuinely, consistently useful. I got to know it, and it got to know me… This gets at a deeper truth about conversational tech: You only discover its capabilities in the course of a personal relationship with it.”
Hence, part of developer’s challenge is making an engaging, likable, and maybe even charming assistant.
But Pierce closes the article with realization that such an agent is
“…only fully useful when it’s everywhere when it can get to know you in multiple contexts—learning your habits, your likes and dislikes, your routine and schedule. The way to get there is to have your AI colonize as many apps and devices as possible.”
So, this technology is coming and probably nearly here. It may well be remarkable and rewarding. I wouldn’t be doing my job, however if I didn’t ask about the emanating ripples and behaviors that will inevitably grow up around it. What will we give up? What will we lose before we realize it is gone? It is marvelous, but like it’s smart-phone cousin (or grandparent), it will change us. As we rush to embrace this, as we most likely will, we should think about this, too.