Essays on Technology and Culture

Thoughts on the Coming Chatbot Revolution

Well, folks, the tech press and VC establishment have shaken their Magic Eight-Ball and determined the Next Big Thing is… “Bots!”

Wait. Is this right? Grace, can you check on that? Really?! Okay, I’ll roll with it.

Yes, it’s bots. Specifically chat bots and AI virtual asistants like Siri and Alexa. Everybody’s getting on board with the bot revolution, and it’s going to revolutionize everything. Get your VC investments primed and ready for all the bot statups.

The rise of the “bot” as the Next Big Thing from the Valley utterly mystified me until recently. What are the advantages of a conversational interface over an explicit, directly manipulable one? There’s the hands-free aspect, something I’ve appreciated with Siri, even more on my Apple Watch, but that only works with the voice assistants. Chatbots? Not so much, though we have come a long way since the days of “YOU CAN’T GET YE FLASK”.

Then it hit me, in that way so many things do. Chatbots, especially when they have a playful personality, are a perfect way to extract more data from people. With Internet users becoming more mindful of their privacy, it’s getting harder for the data brokers and ad companies to get more info to sell advertisements on. What better way to learn consumer preferences than by having them give it to you directly? No more inferring user interests from cookies and browsing data! By presenting a conversational interface, you bypass the defenses of a user’s protectiveness, and get a direct tap into their needs and wants. No wonder it’s a growth industry.

Bots and AI seem like a useful solution being applied to the wrong set of problems. There are great applications for these tools. If I could sit here, at my desk, and be able to just capture a quick idea or OmniFocus task by yelling out loud to my Virtual Assistant, that would be great. I mean, I can… but it’s not great. The chatbot paradigm has the advantage of being simpler than a GUI, and for a number of simpler tasks, it should be a lot easier than one. But it won’t be for everything.

Anything that involves dealing large amounts of data is going to be worse. If you’re looking up pizza places, you’re already going to be overwhelmed in some New York neighborhoods. Instead of finding better ways to handle that data, you’re likely to just be defaulted to whatever chain pizza joint has a marketing deal with your bot provider. Hope you like Dominos, is all I’m saying. Because of this, visual, tactile, and direct interfaces will never go away. Even the voice-controlled universe on Star Trek, where the computer never has trouble understanding you, has a GUI all over the place.

It’s possible a conversational UI would help in allowing computers to be better at understanding nuance. Historically, this is something computers have always sucked at. This is, of course, based on the assumption that the people creating the bots have an understanding of nuance as well. Alyx Baldwin wrote a great piece on The Hidden Dangers of AI for Queer and Trans People. It’s worth your time, but here’s a summary: computers are really good at putting things in boxes, and humans are really bad at being put into boxes. The people who program computers are also lazy and tend to only think of a handful of boxes. Unless the developers of AI, Deep Learning Algorithms, and Chatbots understand the variety of people using them, the AIs, Algorithms, and Chatbots won’t understand them either.

As for understanding, even in terms of language, that’s still up in the air. Voice recognition has come a long way, and on a good day, Siri can understand me despite a whole mess of background noise. Voice recognition still sucks, however, for anyone who speaks with a heavy accent, or has a speech disorder. Since bots and voice recognition systems are often trained on a corpus of speech that assumes someone who speaks a standard language by default.

If you’re not going to come across that language or method of speech in a Silicon Valley development house, you’re not going to see it supported in a voice recognition app or device. It is possible to do single-user training, much like you would with old school voice-to-text apps like Dragon Dictate, but that’s a lot to ask of a user up-front. Easier to just let ’em dangle, though perhaps that might change in time.

Unlike, say, virtual reality, I can see a lot of potential in the “bot” ecosystem, assuming we can work past all these stumbling blocks in the way. I’ve eyed an Amazon Echo for a while, though its utility would be diminished since I refuse to use any streaming music service. We’ll see what happens after WWDC, there. I’m still uncomfortable letting Amazon have an always-on microphone in my apartment, if only because I can’t be sure it’s not going to be parsing my conversations for ad metadata. I could be more willing to trust an Apple device, even if it does less, because Apple is more in tune with me on privacy.

The dream of the AI/chatbot/virtual assistant world is one where everyone’s little earpieces, smartwatches, speaker dinguses, or whatever, seamlessly connects the entire world by our voice, enabling an easier lifestyle for everyone. The reality is likely to be a whole bunch of miserable walled gardens full of microphones that can deliver us crappy pizza while making sure we get ads about debt consolidation every time we complain about the credit card bill after buying one. The former is more preferable, but the later is much more lucrative.