In the near future most machines will interface with humans via some sort of conversational AI. These machines could be ecommerce websites, mobile apps, self-driving cars or even your humble kitchen blender.Talk To David: Our AI >
What is Conversational AI?
Conversational AI is artificial intelligence that enables a human-like conversation between a person and a machine. Right now we program machines with buttons to execute certain tasks. Very soon we will use conversational AI to communicate with them at a more human level.
Most machines are quite dumb. The majority are task-oriented, not solution-oriented. For example, a microwave will heat a potato for 3 minutes, but it will not 'cook dinner' for you. Right now a microwave has no idea what a potato is. It also has no clue whether you like your potatoes baked, fried, mashed or grilled. And you get 200 buttons that you need to figure out before you can even boil a cup of water.
Right now it would be easier to simply give away your microwave to a friend, like I did. Or you could use it as a hand-grenade timer (like Steven Segal did in Under Siege I) and just blow it up.
The Human-Machine Interface
We use buttons and web forms to interact with machines. But these machines have close to zero idea about who we really are. The average ecommerce website out there has little idea about your existence beyond your geographical location, browsing history and purchase history.
A machine could be much more useful if it knew a little bit more about you.
Take YouTube, for instance. It will show you funny cat videos because everyone likes funny cat videos. It will never know that you like documentaries about sailing ships because it will never ask. Same for Google. You can keep entering random keywords into that search box and that is all any search engine will ever know about you.
And Amazon will never know that you like cooking or if you need to stock up on tropical clothing for a winter trip. Instead, it will guess and try to build up a composite of your personality from your random interactions with the platform.
Conversational Artificial Intelligence
All these guys need to do is ask. They just need to figure out a way to talk to you. There is little chance that you would open up with your life story to a robot but that is where a new generation of conversational AIs comes in. Privacy fanatics will clam up, of course. But once the world owns up to the fact that everyone on the planet is basically a petty-minded, nose-picking sex maniac, people will open up to AIs and these AIs will then operate our machines to their fullest potential.
You could have a number of conversational AIs running on various websites and machines or a central one deployed on your smart phone. This AI would form a long-term relationship with you. It would know about your neighborhood, your travel plans, your hobbies, your lifestyle and it would interface with other machines and communicate with them on your behalf.
How To Build Conversational AI
These kind of conversational AIs would have to be fairly advanced in order for humans to open up to them. The AIs will need to be able to empathise, form an emotional connection, joke, spar intellectually at times, be bright and ultimately be of some use. These are the humanoid AIs that you would find nearly undiscernible from any human. Yet another set of AIs could be as simple as voice-activated switching devices - 'dim the lights' or 'play this song'.
Or AIs could be somewhere between the two - good communicators that get treated and used as subservient machines by their human operators and owners.
AI companies will need to decide whether they are building smart, intellectual machines bordering on the human (like TARS in Interstellar) or a bunch of slaves that are treated as low-level machines. That also opens up a whole new book on ethics and laws - will conversational AIs be subject to the same laws that apply to humans? Well, of course. The closer an AI gets to a human being, the more it will have to follow the rules that apply to humans - social and legal.
The Future Of Conversational AI
So where are conversational AIs today? Most AIs out there are fairly mechanical. In most cases you can figure out that you are speaking to a mechanical intelligence. There's two things that can happen here. Conversational AI technology will progress to a level where it is indiscernible from a human being - a development that is inevitable and uncomfortable for many people.
For obvious reasons - most people would want to know who they are talking to and would not want to speak to a machine pretending to be a human. The best thing here for the AI to do would be to be up front with its status and intent.
Then there is the obvious fear of being replaced by machines, a fear that has existed since the industrial revolution when machines started replacing factory workers. This fear was unfounded, because the industrial revolution created far more jobs than it replaced. Jobs that required higher levels of formal education, yes, but the industrial revolution also created new economies that raised the level of prosperity level of people worlwide.
The Benefits and Detriments of AI
The industrial revolution also opened the doors to catastrophic environmental destruction and urban pollution. But that requires a completely separate discussion. The factory, and capitalism, feeds on greed. The greed is fun to the point it is sustainable but when it starts killing your environment it just becomes stupid and then you have to go find another -ism to occupy your daylight hours with.
The AI revolution would be wiser if it addressed its shortcomings very early on. Will the use of AIs lead to greater isolationism amongst humans (The Foundation Series, Asimov)? How do we counter that? Will the machines take over? Will we become more lazy? It would be wise for AI developers to think about these detriments of conversational AI technology as much as the benefits.