Thursday, June 16, 2016

Conversational Agents and Personal Assistants--some thoughts

In a recent FastCompany article, Mark Sullivan writes about the "AI personal assistant wars". The main point of the article is how Apple as a company is (or is not) well positioned to compete in the new emerging landscape of conversational agents and personal assistants (or whatever the final term for this type of thing will be).

One of the main messages in the article is that we are leaving the 'app' paradigm and moving towards, what Microsoft CEO Nadella calls, the age of the 'bot'. In the article he is quoted saying that 'Bots are the new apps'.

These bots are supposed to create a new layer on top of existing applications and services and guide and support users by being the 'person' that can find the right information or service. As a user you are supposed to just talk to your bot as you would to a real person assistant or butler (which is another term used).

This development is exiting and it will be transformational in many aspects, but the question is if the present hype is maybe overestimating the potential of this new paradigm. One of the most obvious strengths of conversational agents is that they are 'faceless' (as we define it in our article on Faceless Interaction) that is, we can interact with them without having to focus our attention of a specific surface. However, at the same time facelessness poses serious problems with interaction. In the same article we for instance discuss the notion of interactivity clutter and how faceless interaction leads to new forms of clutter that are so far difficult to see how they can be solved.

The idea that agents or assistants by themselves will change interaction is of course too simplistic. It will in many ways add complexity and confusion. The more we add 'intelligence' to our technology and the more we are able to converse with them, the more we enter our daily life dealing with people with all its misunderstandings and confusions. Interfaces provide us with a simple and direct way of not having to negotiate, not having to explain, to 'discuss' things. With intelligence and conversations comes of course attentional freedom, at least spatially, though it will automatically restrict and limit us in other ways.


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