Intelligent Conversations: The New User Interface?

Recently there have been some interesting articles about how the graphic user interface we’ve had on our screens for many years is gradually being replaced by a new user interface – the conversation.  

Earlier this month, Matt Gilligan wrote on his Medium blog

Forget “there’s an app for that” — what’s next is “there’s a chat for that.”

And just a few days ago, WIRED magazine had an article titled “The Future of UI Design? Old-School Text Messages”.

Some of this is a result of the fact that people are more often using the web on their smart phones and tablets than on laptops and desktop computers.  With bigger screens, the older devices have more room for a nice graphic interface than smartphones – even the newest smart phones that always seem to be bigger than the previous generation.

And many people communicate much of the day through conversations that are composed of text messages.  There’s a good listing of some of the more innovative text apps in “Futures of text”.

The idea of a conversational interface is also a reflection of the use of various personal assistants that you talk to, like Siri.  These, of course, have depended on developments in artificial technology, in particular the recognition and processing of natural (human) spoken language.  Much research is being conducted to make these better and less the target of satire – like this one from the Big Bang Theory TV series.

There’s another branch of artificial intelligence research that should be resurrected from its relative oblivion to help out – expert systems.  An expert system attempts to automate the kind of conversation – especially a dynamic, intelligent sequence of questions and answers – that would occur between a human expert and another person.  (You can learn more at Wikipedia and GovLab.)

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In the late 1980s and early 1990s, expert systems were the most hyped part of the artificial intelligence community.  

As I’ve blogged before, I was one of those involved with expert systems during that period.  Then that interest in expert systems rapidly diminished with the rise of the web and in the face of various technological obstacles, like the hard work of acquiring expert knowledge.   More recently, with “big data” being collected all around us, the big focus in the artificial intelligence community has been on machine learning – having AI systems figure out what that data means.

But expert systems work didn’t disappear altogether.  Applications have been developed for medicine, finance, education and mechanical repairs, among other subjects.

It’s now worth raising the profile of this technology much higher if the conversation becomes the dominant user interface.  The reason is simple: these conversations haven’t been very smart.  Most of the apps are good at getting basic information as if you typed it into a web browser.  Beyond that?  Not so much.

There are even very funny videos of the way these work or rather don’t work well.  Take a look at “If Siri was your mom”, prepared for Mother’s Day this year with the woman who was the original voice of Siri as Mom.  

In its simplest form, expert systems may be represented as a smart decision tree based on the knowledge and research of experts.

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It’s pretty easy to see how this approach could be used to make sure that the conversation – by text or voice – is useful for a person.

There is, of course, much more sophistication available in expert systems than is represented in this picture.  For example, some can handle probabilities and other forms of ambiguity.  Others can be quite elaborate and can include external data, in addition to the answers from a person – for example, his/her temperature or speed of typing or talking.

The original developers of Siri have taken what they’ve learned from that work and are building their next product.  Called “Viv: The Global Brain”, it’s still pretty much in stealth mode so it’s hard to figure out how much expert system intelligence is built into it.  But a story about them on WIRED last year showed an infographic which implies that an expert system has a role in the package.  See the lower left on the second slide.

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Personally I like the shift to a conversational interface with technology since it becomes available in so many different places and ways.  But I’ll really look forward to it when those conversations become smarter.  I’ll let you know as I see new developments.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis

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