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The Machines Are Listening To Us (But They’re Still Pretty Dumb…)

We are at an important intersection with regards to interaction design. Humans have been working alongside machines since the times of Archimedes around the 3rd Century BC. Ever since then we have been using controls such as levers, pedals, triggers, keyboards and mice to communicate with the machines about our intentions. And if those communications work just right, the machines comply to our will and our jobs are made easier. 

This relationship that we have with machines has reached an inflection point. Up until now, humans have been the ones that change our communication patterns to match that of the machines. We are the ones that learn how to use the machines, and not the other way around. As we move into this age of conversational interfaces, AI, chatbots and natural language processing, we are witnessing the machines now changing their communication patterns to match that of humans. 

Interaction design principles largely stand on the idea of developing interfaces in an intuitive nature. Put another way, it should be able for a human to start using a tool with little to no instruction. You may not realize it, but humans are constantly being challenged by machines and being coerced into unnatural communications mechanisms. Take the keyboard for example; was it natural for you to type with a QWERTY keyboard on your first attempt? Or consider Google; you've learned to search for information based on keywords, keyword priority, modifiers and you probably even have a decent understanding of Google's relevance scoring based on the millions of results you've seen over the course of your life. 

Modern day conversational interfaces are changing the rules. Emerging technologies such as Alexa, Google Home, Siri and Chatbots are introducing us into a new frontier of human to machine communication. Quite simply these technologies leverage the most powerful communication tool we have ever known - 'common language'. There is nothing we have ever known to be better than language and linguistics to communicate our intentions. This is why there's so much excitement in this field for interaction designers.

But we're not there yet, even the most advanced interfaces are still very much flawed. Consider the two types of chatbot models. First, you have the retrieval-based chatbot model. This is essentially a choose your own adventure book. Regardless of how much choice the chatbot may make you feel that you have, there are only a set number of responses and dialogues that the chatbot could possibly offer. Nearly every chatbot being used for commercial purposes fall into this category. Second, you have the generative chatbot model. This is where things get really interesting. These are the bots that parse each word and phrase used by the human, comprehend the meaning and intention and respond based on that comprehension. These bots leverage machine learning to build their comprehension and responses over time. While generative chatbots are becoming more commonplace, there are few examples of them in the commercial space.

Whenever major shifts occur in technology, it's prudent of us to consider its impact on society. Many are concerned that robots represent a major threat to jobs and our standard of living. This is certainly an important conversation to have. As robots come into the fold and we see more and more applicability for robots to assist us in our work, there will inevitably be major changes in our workplace and workforce. That being said, this is just another technology. Yes, it looks and feels more like a human, but in reality, we have been developing technologies that mimic or replace human jobs since the hand axe. We will do what we've always done and leverage machines to aid us in our endeavors so that we can focus on new challenges.

It's an incredible time in history where we are witnessing machines that are capable of advanced thinking and language.

At Helium, we are pushing the boundaries of machines to be more human but always remembering that machines are here to assist and just like all the machines of the past, they need to be designed in a way that is considerate of their effect on society and the humans that they work alongside with. We look forward to the day when we have nerf-gun fights and water-cooler chats with machines in our offices.


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Helium is a digital strategy and execution company focused on working with brands to create elevated experiences.