Silicon Valley is a strange place full of strange memes, and right now Chatbots are the latest meme. Everyone is crazy about chatbots. I’m disappointed by this meme because of the implications it has on what I really want. The obsession with chatbots implies that the technical hurdles of creating what I actually want, a conversational AI Digital Assistant, are really big and will probably not be solved in the immediate future.

The Current State of Digital Assistants

In the past couple of years we’ve seen a few different incarnations of the Digital Assistant: Google Now, Siri, Cortana, and most recently Amazon’s Echo. All of them are basically voice command interfaces that can do little more than check calendars and search for things. All require the same basic “Hey Thing, What’s/Do _____” command. You can think of them as little more than advanced Clappers. Maybe because it’s embarrassing to say “Okay Google” or “Hey Siri” in public (often for the apps to fail at comprehending you), Silicon Valley has got it in their heads that the chat interface is the UX of the future for how we interface with more advanced tools. I’m not convinced by text based interfaces, I’ll take a well designed app any day. The only current text based app I use is Digit a very basic automatic savings device.

Beyond the idea of a text based interface, the limits of current Digital Assistants are disappointing. If I say “Okay Google” to my phone, unless I say a very limited set of commands it don’t really respond at all. Basic things, like “Okay Google, turn he music up a bit.” do absolutely nothing. While it’s nice being able to dictate a text message and send it, but I want to easily control the world around me too. This is one of the many disappointments of Google Now. Amazon’s Echo seems to be the first attempt to get one of these Digital Assistant to be present in your house, but it has similar issues. Facebook’s M, has gotten a decent amount of hype but it’s in extremely limited beta and may not see a wide release for awhile.

I Just Want a Samantha

The only movie I’ve ever seen where I saw a piece of magic movie technology and immediately thought “I have to have that” is Spike Jonze’s Her. Her is a lovely film that explores human relationships with technology and it centers around the interaction between the main character Theo and his AI Digital Assistant Samantha. Samantha in this movie represents the technological future I want. She is an AI that is naturally conversational and seamlessly integrates with the Theo’s technology ecosystem. She can organize his mail, spark conversation, interpret events, control his apartment, and ultimately so much more.

Her made me really think about what I want in my technological ecosystem. Eventually I came up with some clear ideas:

  • Everything is connected (Internet of Things or IoT). My phone connects to my TV, Stereo, and it will eventually connect to everything else. I’ve placed my bet on Google’s ecosystem to accomplish this in basic ways so far.
  • I want conversational control. I’m perfectly comfortable talking out load to interface with technology, but I want something more than just memorizing certain audio commands.
  • I’m okay with an AI taking some control. When Google introduced Priority email sorting in Gmail I immediately began using it, and as soon as they came out with Inbox I was also an early adopter. However, letting Google sort my email is just a small step towards the ultimate goal of a smart Digital Assistant.

Sadly, the things I want seem to be more than a couple years out. Realistically I’d guess at least five for a mature IoT ecosystem. The IoT setup I want is the easiest problem to solve as it’s a hardware and API problem. The formula is simple, put small computers in everything, make them talk to each other. Honestly though, as soon as I get a house I’ll be playing with all the cutting edge “beta” IoT home connectivity products. Also my next car will have to have Android Auto.

The big challenges of a true conversational AI that can analyze and make judgments based on my activities? Well Samantha seems like a long way away. Guess I’ll just have to settle and play with whatever chatbots 2016 brings.