Welcome to 2018

One sure prediction is that the new year will bring a slew of predictions, some glowingly optimistic and some confidently pessimistic. I’ve sifted through the predictions in the digital world, and here’s my summary, plus a New Year’s gift.

Artificial Intelligence

As the use of big data, algorithms and the digital technology has evolved artificial intelligence has moved from the esoteric into real world.

It turns up in marketing, with a series of caveats. It’s behind an app to identifying snakes, with caveats about what that does for our relationship with nature. It’s contributing to how we brew beer and AI is what makes chatbots smart enough to be helpful.

The Webby Awards Trend report notes that we still trust humans over AI, but I suspect we’re not always aware of where AI impacts our lives. We will see more practical adaptations of AI in 2018.

Virtual Reality

I like the idea of virtual reality, but my experience so far has been that it doesn’t add enough to my experience to compensate for the awfulness of the headset. Frankly I’d rather read a book and imagine the worlds. So the story-telling in VR needs to improve, and the devices need to get better.

So far the biggest use seems to be in gaming but even there users are underwhelmed, the Economist reported in December that VR has failed to live up to it’s hype, and added that there is a “distinct whiff of urgency in the air” as VR struggles with poor equipment and unsatisfactory content.

The devices are starting to get lighter and prettier, however they’re still relatively expensive.


Will 2018 be the year that the devices and the experiences improve?

Blockchain

Blockchain is the technology behind bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, it has other uses in making digital information exchange more trustworthy.

We’ll see these tests scale more widely along with more novel uses, I’m sure there are smart people out there looking at how blockchain could be used more broadly to securing our online identity.

Bots

Bots get a lot of bad press, they were exploited in the 2016 election and throughout 2017 to deliver false information to a screen near you, eroding reasonable debate and internet freedom according to Freedom House reports.

However due to advances in AI bots are starting to get better at customer service than humans. Will 2018 be the year we pass the Turing Test on a help-desk call?

Cybersecurity

This remained a big issue for business last year with major breaches in a range of industries from food retail, email, healthcare and governments.

Companies spend increasing proportions of their IT budget on cybersecurity and introduce restrictive measure to protect their data (USB sticks are frequently banned for example), 2018 will be the year of innovation in cybersecurity as companies struggle to reassure customers that their data is safe.

Social Media

Social media will become even more commercialised, expect more of those ads on Instagram, and more promoted posts – and more ways to promote content – on all platforms as the pressure increases for the platforms to be profitable and for company use of social media to demonstrate a return on investment. This won’t be pretty.

On the plus side we’ll see more tweaks on the platforms to encourage engagement; expect more platforms to adapt the Facebook emoticon model, and more uses of video and live-streaming.

My New Year’s Gift

In an attempt to be more consistent with my blog posting I developed a content calendar, I’ve added the various “International Day Of…” dates that might be useful along with a few significant birthdays and events. I’ve added a few content ideas, and I’m sharing the framework so far in case anyone else finds it useful.

2017

As we say farewell to 2017, here’s a reminder of what the world thought was worth searching for – it’s a two minute film from Google based on search data. It’s like a time capsule of the year.

 

Image: New Year’s Day  |  geralt on Pixabay  |  CC0 1.0

Uncanny Valley

CM2017_04_Valley.png

We’re increasingly interacting with machines that masquerade as humans, either as an online chatbot, voice activated tools (Siri, Alexa and friends), and just occasionally as robots. As long as the machine is obviously a machine we’re comfortable interacting with it, and we’ll make allowances for its robot brain.

As our ability to use high levels of artificial intelligence delivers more human-like machines it will become harder to determine whether a machine is a machine based on the interaction.  When the machine starts to imitate a human well we’ll interact as long as we see the human.

The “Uncanny Valley” describes the feeling of being disturbed by interacting  and having the realisation that the machine isn’t as human as we’d thought. Or, conversely, knowing that we’re interacting with a robot but finding the speech, look and movements terribly life-like. It’s that moment when you think “oh, creepy”.  The term was created more than forty years ago by Robotics Professor Masahiro Mori.

As the robots become more human like this effect will, in theory, disappear. After all if we can’t distinguish the machine as a machine then we won’t have the discomfort. We still have some way to go but robotics engineers and AI programmers are getting us closer. Take a look at SAYA, the reception robot created by the Koboyashi Laboratory at Tokyo University of Science. Note this is from 2009, so I’m sure there have been advance in design and interaction since then, in the meantime SAYA seems uncanny to me.

 

 

Image:  Templum Ex Obscurum  |  Narshe Talbot |  CC BY2.0

Chat; the New Web

In those heady early days of the web personal sites were the rage. Who can remember GeoCities? I had a book review site online back then, I don’t anyone read it – not even my mother. As the web became more prevalent and a commercial option personal sites were pushed to a fringe and later into blogs.

Then came social media, with the biggest platforms attracting millions of accounts (that’s Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter et al). Increasingly social media is being exploited by business and absorbed into communications and marketing teams as another channel. Random conversations are harder, and the troll element can make using the platforms a pretty horrible experience.

Along came messenger tools, with WhatsApp listed as the second biggest social network in some analyses.

Rise of Messenger

Which is great for individuals. But much harder for businesses to exploit, they have to automate responses and processes. For example you can order a Domino’s pizza via an emoji sent via FB messenger. What a world. But to do that you need to first set up your “favourite order” and payment info on a Domino’s account and connect it to your Facebook account. So there’s a process designed to get your pizza order out to you.

This is a simple transaction. It’s essentially a yes/no question you’re answering. Other uses of messenger and chat apps are more ambitious. My bank now offers support via chat, which is a brilliant idea, except that it’s all in Dutch… now my Dutch is OK for day to day things, but my spelling is pretty atrocious so I end up flicking between Google translate and the chat bot – the chat bot gets bored. (I am aware I have just ascribed a human emotional reaction to a piece of software).

Chat bots, the tools companies use to make messenger apps scalable, can only answer the questions in its data base; the “known knowns”.  Which means they can serve as a sort of “FAQ” service, which can be helpful to cost-cutting businesses but less so customers with complex questions. Which means that companies are looking to AI to broaden the range of solutions offered and make the responses smarter.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence is the ability of machines to learn and apply reasoning and from a geek perspective it’s exciting. Tech companies are competing to see who can pass the Turing Test. But it’s also a way for businesses to scale conversation, that essential element of human interaction could one day be done by machines.

The experiments in artificial intelligence are exciting and sometimes disturbing; Microsoft’s chatbot Tay was racist within a day. For something more fun, Project Murphy uses Skype and image swapping and watches your reaction to judge how well the match worked.

Most recently I found a website that is completely given over to a chat function. There is no other content at all, and you’re forced to engage, here’s the background.

So of course I tried it.

The engagement possibilities are limited, you’re clicking on a button to go forward, sometimes choosing between two options. It’s got some of the socialisation right, the humour in the interactions works and the Bear Bot cleverly waits a couple of interactions to ask my name. It’s a simple trust builder.

But then it goes a bit wrong. When asked a question I didn’t have enough space for a fully thoughtful response, and couldn’t edit it when I discovered the size limit.  Despite entering nonsense I earned “six fish” for my contribution and the thanks of the Bear Bot. This didn’t really increase my trust – pretty sure my contribution is not being “kept in mind” unless by that they mean “saved on a server somewhere”.

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 10.34.05I kept going. But I don’t get to talk in this chatbot, I’m once again a passive consumer of the information chosen for me. And then suddenly there’s a suggestion of inviting someone else into the conversation. That someone is Oliver Reichenstein, he’s kinda a big deal in user design, here’s an interview where he talks about some of his ideas.
Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 10.36.24

I said no and earnt zero fish for that answer.

But seriously was Oliver there? It seems a poor way for him to spend his valuable time.

Overall the experience of the website as a chat was disappointing.  It seems to be pitched as a way for me to discover information – I was given one interesting link early in the conversation but I’d have found the information faster with a simple search. The interaction feels regressive, most of the time I was given one or two choices, like e-Learning in the 90s. I’d enjoy the interaction on an old-fashioned discussion forum more – if you find the right group the interaction and expertise are awesome.

Having said that I do appreciate that the company is trying something new, I’m curious to see how their experiment evolves.

In Conclusion

Chatbots are useful, they may even be able to support us on more open tasks that deal with the “known knowns” using strong databases, good process design and AI.

But until we pass the Turing Test conversation and interaction will not really scale.

Artificial Intelligence

“The intelligence exhibited by machines or software”, artificial intelligence holds a lot of promise in making machines smarter using tools of natural language processing, reasoning, computational intelligence, robotics etc. The commercial potential includes customer service, self driving cars and personal care.

Microsoft launched an experimental chatbot based on AI last week. On Wednesday Tay was born, an artificially intelligent chatbot with the personality of a 19-year-old female American, with the aim of “conducting research on conversational understanding”.

But it quickly went wrong, within hours Tay’s twitter account was supporting conspiracy theories around 9/11, espousing right wing views to vie with Hitler or Donald Trump. Tay’s life was short, Microsoft took her offline by the evening, and the worst of her tweets started disappearing. (Not before loads of people took screen grabs).

In the same week FastCompany reported on Whisper’s Arbiter software which ensures that nothing untoward is published by the company’s user-base. Whisper is anonymous and combines text with images, a virtual version of PostSecret. Their filter software is build on masses of data, but they still use human moderators to make sure that their user generated content stays on the right side of the company’s policies. This is particular challenging in an environment of anonymous accounts and sneaky attempts to subvert the algorithm.

So why didn’t Microsoft do the same? This “troll” phenomenon is well-known and well documented, and Microsoft has significant experience using social platforms, certainly enough to predict this.  WIRED report that Microsoft advised them in an email “We have taken Tay offline and are making adjustments” so perhaps when Tay comes back online she’ll have learnt from the first experiment.

There’s an oft quoted saying “artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity”, in this case Tay learnt from us, she copied patterns of speech and opinions from the humans who interacted with her. She’s a human creation in more ways than one; to make artificial intelligence better, we need to be better humans.

Image: digitization via pixabay