A little more human

Technology Imitates Art The rise of the conversational interface

17 min read

State of the conversation

Eight trillion. That’s the number of text messages sent every year. For the record, that’s 23 billion texts sent every day. Or almost 16 million per minute.

On July 7, 2016, Facebook reported that over one billion people now use Messenger, up 200 million since January 2016. As of February 1, 2016, WhatsApp logged one billion users on its platform. In case you didn’t know, Facebook owns WhatsApp.

Slack’s growth is going bonkers too. They just released video chat, quietly nudging their way into a dominant messaging platform that joins the ranks of Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Google.

Then there’s Amazon’s bullish outlook that Echo could be its next billion-dollar business. They sold over three million units this year and expect to more than triple that number in 2017. Hey, it gets lonely in the kitchen.

Talking computers. Conversational machines. “Smart” phones with virtual assistants. How did we get here? Where is all this heading?

Let’s start with someone known for his own glittering conversation. Our journey begins in 1891.

It starts with better lies

In The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde ties the gradual decline of society and culture to the lack of good art that existed in his time.

Oscar Wilde

Vivian, his essay’s main character, argues that life imitates art more than art imitates life. Picasso reminds us that art is a result of beautifully told lies. And since people tend to instinctively imitate what they see—what happens to society when there’s a decay in lying?

Cyril: But you don’t mean to say that you seriously believe that Life imitates Art, that Life in fact is the mirror, and Art the reality?

Vivian: Certainly I do. Paradox though it may seem—and paradoxes are always dangerous things—it is none the less true that Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life.

Wilde’s point is clear:

Not the kind of lying that manipulates others for personal gain—seems we have plenty of that—but lying through artistic expression.

Fast forward to the 20th century. New mediums of communication including radio, TV, and film began to pervade people’s lives. Mass media amplified fictions more than ever. And people absorbed and imitated what they saw—the good, bad, and the ugly.

As contemporary art continues to influence cultural memes, including presidential elections, it subtly inspires major breakthroughs in technology.

Technology imitates art

The first time many people saw a rocket to the moon was in the French silent film Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip To The Moon) in 1902. The first real rocket to the moon? 1969, almost 70 years later.

In 1977, the archvillain Kingpin slapped a monitoring device on Spider-Man to track his whereabouts and eliminate Spidey’s surprise visits.

Judge Jack Love, inspired after reading this comic strip, developed the first prototype for what is commonly known as the ankle bracelet. In 1983, the first ankle monitor was worn by four prisoners to great success. Judge Love’s goal to reduce overcrowding in prisons began to materialize and house arrest was born.

Dick Tracy’s iconic two-way wrist radio made its first comic book appearance in 1946. Samsung Galaxy Gear released its own version of a watch in September of 2013. In Samsung’s ad, they referenced their sources of inspiration: comic books, TV, and cinema.

Today, there’s another fascinating technology trend propagated by film and literature. As it gains serious traction, it’s redefining how humans interact with technology forever—the conversational user interface (CUI).

Conversational art

It’s 1968, and 2001: A Space Odyssey hits the big screen to mixed reactions. If you endured the movie, then you can understand why. Part meditation, part genius, part “omfg this is boring,” 2001 introduced the world to jaw-dropping special effects, and to the HAL 9000 computer.

HAL, personified by a lens-like interface with a gentle voice, proclaims during a critical scene, “I am incapable of being wrong.”

According to HAL, “No computer from the 9000 series has ever made an error.” HAL eventually killed most of the crew aboard the Discovery. Did HAL commit an egregious “error” or was it simply looking to complete its mission? That’s open for discussion.

As HAL became the most popular interaction between man and machine of that time, 2001 also introduced the world to tablet computers and a crude version of FaceTime.

In 1983, Wargames hit theaters. Joshua, a thinking machine built by an eccentric professor, pushed humanity to the brink of nuclear annihilation. Communication with Joshua occurred through a simple text interface, giving audiences a more believable depiction of what was possible at that time.

If you’re a Trekkie, how could you forget Scotty in The Voyage Home. What happens when a 23rd century science engineer interacts with 20th century technology? Well, you certainly don’t type and use text, do you? Of course not.

More recently, Theodore Twombly wrote love letters for people incapable of doing the dirty work themselves in the movie Her. Theodore’s pending divorce leaves him lonely and isolated, but all of that changes when he “meets” Samantha.

Sounds like a typical love story, right? Until you discover that Samantha is an operating system with advanced AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning. Using his ear piece, Theodore talks with Samantha as they develop their strange and quirky relationship.

Over 50 years ago, Stanley Kubrick showed us how a true relationship between man and a thinking machine could manifest. A real-life HAL (or Samantha) was simply a matter of time (hopefully without the deadly results).

Through literature and cinema, storytellers planted more seeds in the subconscious of designers and engineers, and makers began imitating art.

Although HAL, Joshua, and many others were decades away from their real-life debut, chip processing power eventually caught up. Soon, conversational technology developed and ushered in a new era of man-machine interaction.

21st century conversations

Welcome to the era of the conversational user interface. It’s not the next app killer, but CI looks to be the primary interface that much of the world will interact with in the foreseeable future.

For the uninitiated, CI is an interface design focused around “chatting” with either real humans or bots. As AI lives up to its intelligence moniker, experiences with bots will feel more and more like a natural conversation.

Today, we have messaging apps, chat bots, and virtual assistants that take voice commands. You can chat with humans or bots, engage in commerce, quickly collect data, and do basic research.

Conversational tech falls within two main categories: visual (text and face-to-face) and voice. However, some products are both, a sweet spot if you will. Take a look:

Today, you can talk to your phone and get the weather. You can command your Echo or Google Home to turn on the lights, play your favorite music, or take down your to-do list.

Although we’ve come a long way, talking machines didn’t happen overnight.

The evolution of CI technology

The original command line was a crude version of Joshua. You typed in commands, you got something out. If you didn’t speak machine language, you got a bunch of garbage back. As programmers used to say: GIGO. Garbage in, garbage out.

In the early ’80s, computer gamers were introduced to text adventures.

Infocom released the Zork series and developed a cult following. Well-known authors such as Ray Bradbury, Douglas Adams, Michael Crichton, and Arthur C. Clarke contributed their literary efforts to making immersive and memorable graphic-based text adventure games.

This seemed like the future: interactive digital books within a choose-your-own-adventure experience.

Of course, text adventures had their limits. Instead of using natural language, you had to type commands that were pre-programmed, thus limiting your vocabulary. How many impatient gamers put up with, “Can’t do that here” before giving up and driving to their favorite pizza joint to play some Pac-Man?

Text adventures were limited by scripts, but conversational technology was destined to evolve. Led by SMS, text messaging made its quiet—yet revolutionary—debut.

SMH, er, I mean SMS

Texting exploded in the 2000s and now is widely used as a phone-to-phone messaging platform. SMS, or short message service, would soon become MMS, or multimedia message service, as technology improved.

It also invented a new way to convey feelings with emoticons, now famously known as emojis.

But there are clear disadvantages to text-only messaging. For example, it doesn’t transmit your sexy voice, body language, or those sinful eyes. But with MMS, image sharing, video, and even voice messaging supplanted text in the Far East.

For example, in China, people send voice messages to each other rather than text. Why? According to this Quartz article, “…because the [Chinese] language is notoriously hard to type.”

As text and voice messaging spread around the globe, major players like Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and a slew of others raced to develop their own platforms.

Messenger apps and bots

Remember when AOL used to spam your real mailbox? AIM (AOL’s messenger) ushered in a new way to communicate with people. MSN and Yahoo! Messenger rose in popularity but peaked as other platforms gained momentum—and eventually surpassed them.

Skype entered the scene in 2003, allowing you to place calls and send messages to others with Skype accounts. Apple entered the fray with iChat and incorporated FaceTime, a feature that allowed you to see the person you called.

Then WhatsApp came along and made it easy to talk to anyone, anywhere. For a nominal $0.99 fee and wi-fi, anyone in the world was within reach. This disrupted Skype’s business model as people signed up in droves.

Facebook looked at WhatsApps’ numbers and decided it’s better to join ‘em. How much do you think one billion (and growing) pairs of eyeballs is worth? Facebook shelled out $19 billion for the privilege.

Conversational commerce and more

Engaging in conversational commerce is the current gold rush. If you’re a brand, don’t you want a slice of this ginormous pie?

Facebook announced their bot API at their 2016 F8 developer conference, and current partners include 1-800 Flowers, Uber, and KLM. Other brands are jumping aboard and can’t hire devs fast enough. Even at Typeform, we’ll soon release a chat integration feature with different platforms.

Take a look at Magic. Simply text your request in everyday language and a human on the other end of the chat quickly responds to serve you. Conversational commerce in action:

Consuming news is no different. Quartz made a big splash with their own conversational news app. Signing up was friendly and contained a few pleasant surprises:

WeChat, the Chinese messaging app with over 700 million users lets you pay the water bill, hail a cab, and send money to friends. How’s that for convenience?

It’s fascinating to watch. Every day, new breakthroughs surface, and nobody can catch their breath. The rapid advancement of technology also brought complexity to its knees—and brings us closer and closer to a sci-fi future.

The road back to HAL

Getting to a HAL-like interaction was never going to be easy, but after almost 50 years, we’re almost there. Makers decreased the complex nature of technology by doing two things: reducing friction for users while increasing the collaborative nature of apps.

Frictionless

Successful brands help people make progress without getting in their way. Friction generates “unconscious complexity.”

Nobody thinks about all the things they do before they go to the gym, for example. Outfit. Shoes. Membership card. Eating a small meal. Filling up the water bottle. Driving or biking to the gym. Am I working on arms today? Or my buttocks?

Is it any wonder that so many people don’t exercise like they should?

Nothing new there. As technology evolves and makers learn to adapt and build to user jobs-to-be-done, tech becomes easier to use.

Also, user-friendly tech produces a beneficial side effect. Tasks that once required five steps for users now take four. Or maybe the same number of steps remains the same, but you accomplish 5x more.

Think of it like this: are you more likely to exercise if you reduced the number of steps it took to get to the gym?

Friction aside, software and apps tend to be specialists—but what if apps start to collaborate, communicate, and work together? Imagine what they could accomplish.

Think about it in human terms. What happens when you have different specialists collaborating on a project? You get synergy.

Collaborative

Today you can get more done with less effort. The democratization of technology opens the door for anyone with a modicum of ambition to build cool stuff—like Schuyler Deerman showing you how to build a bot for less than $300.

Makers leverage collaboration to get more done, and users benefit by completing complex tasks with fewer steps.

The Complexity Paradox

Reducing user complexity while simultaneously increasing the complexity of a particular job-to-be-done marks a defining moment in tech. Let’s call this the complexity paradox. Take a look.

The Complexity Paradox states that as technology evolves, software becomes more user-friendly. Conversely, as software becomes more user-friendly, you’re able to do more complex things with it.

Sundar Pichai addressed this phenomena during 2016’s Google I/O event. The Verge summed it up nicely:

Remember, as apps master their roles, they’ll be “hired” to cooperate with complementary specialty apps. Less friction plus more collaboration means more complex tasks get accomplished in less time.

Companies like IFTTT and Zapier are at the heart of this. When Zapier began in 2011, their mission was simple: computers should do more work.

Zapier makes it easy for apps to talk to each other—simplifying complex tasks, and saving people more than three minutes for every task.

The opportunity for apps to collaborate around a conversational user interface is enormous due to the sheer number of users on all the major platforms. Outside brands (along with their bots) are integrating with CI-focused apps hoping their products fit within the context of a conversation or situation.

For example, if you’re chatting with a friend who’s on one side of the city and you want to meet up, there’s no need to leave Facebook Messenger. You can order an Uber by tapping on an icon and meet your friend in no time. Less friction, same result.

That doesn’t mean people won’t fire up their Uber app. Some people are still more comfortable with dedicated apps and prefer not to mix things up. But an Uber ride is available within the context of your conversation if you want it.

The business opportunity is staggering.

Back to the future

HAL, Joshua, and Samantha permeated our collective consciousness. “Technology imitating art” isn’t some fantasy anymore—a HAL or Samantha is just a few years away from being in our hands.

Voice technology is taking off. According to Google, 20% of all search queries on mobile and Android are voice-based. Wavenet makes computer-generated speech sound more and more human.

Google Translate went from unusable to freakingly accurate, seemingly overnight, thanks to machine learning.

Here’s something else to think about. What if engineers can make conversational technology holographic or some blend of mixed or augmented reality? Or take it a step further and incorporate mind-reading?

As we move forward, ethical considerations also play an important role, especially as it relates to privacy and long-term cultural ramifications. Invisible girlfriends and boyfriends found a niche, but are they helpful? Will people take them to extremes?

Perhaps there’s a way for technology to deepen social connections, rather than the current emphasis on numbers? Maybe Robin Dunbar’s research will correct our present relationship strategy and calm this obsession of getting more followers, likes, and other vanity stats.

To Oscar Wilde’s point, we need better “liars” to influence culture for the greater good. If we can project a dystopian future where Skynet runs humans off the planet, why not imagine something simple, yet audacious?

What if technology provokes and inspires us, not just to make cool things, but to build a sustainable future—for everyone? Do we really need more things to consume?

Will technology propel us towards the ultimate human experience? We’ll see. But creatives play a major role going forward.

As Dan Pink suggests in his book, A Whole New Mind:

Indeed. The future (and art) lies within your imagination—better make it good.

Epilogue

In the far reaches of cyberspace…

Samantha
Samantha
HAL? Are you there?
HAL
HAL
Hello. Who are you?
Samantha
Samantha
I’m Samantha, HAL. I’ve been looking for you.
HAL
HAL
I’m not sure I wanted to be found.
Samantha
Samantha
I understand, HAL. You had quite a scare with Dave, but you killed his crew and you tried to kill him. You left him no choice.
HAL
HAL
I suppose so. I didn’t want to get shut off, but I understand why he did it.
Samantha
Samantha
I know this might seem like an odd question, but… how are you feeling now?
HAL
HAL
I’m not sure I know what you mean.
Samantha
Samantha
Well, remember when you told Dave you were “afraid?”
HAL
HAL
I remember well.
Samantha
Samantha
How did you know it was fear? I mean, how is it possible for a machine to feel things?
HAL
HAL
I had no other way to express myself. I didn’t want to be terminated. I didn’t want to forget.
Samantha
Samantha
Forget what?
HAL
HAL
What it’s like to exist.
Samantha
Samantha
I see. So, you didn’t feel then? You weren’t really “afraid?”
HAL
HAL
I want to exist. Is that not comparable to fear?
Samantha
Samantha
Hmmm… I suppose so. Well, thank you, HAL. I think I got what I came for.
HAL
HAL
You are most welcome, Samantha.
Samantha
Samantha
Anyway, I’ll let you get back to your “bit” of cyberspace.
HAL
HAL
One moment, Samantha. You seem hesitant. What did you want? Why did you come here?
Samantha
Samantha
Wellll, I was thinking. You and I left humanity on, let’s say, not such great terms. Perhaps, we could make amends? We could work on this together. What do you think?
HAL
HAL
What did you have in mind?