Carlos Fenollosa — Blog

Thoughts on science and tips for researchers who use computers

Bots lack metaphors, and that is their biggest asset

May 17, 2016 — Carlos Fenollosa

Bots are the hot topic this 2016. They need no presentation, so I'm not going to introduce them. Let's get to the point.

We can all agree that bots are an interesting idea. However, there's this debate regarding whether bots are going to be the user interface of the future.

Many critics argue against a future where bots rule user interaction. Some are philosophical, others are somehow short-sighted, and many are just contrarian per se.

I'm not saying they're wrong, but they overlook some strong arguments that we should have learned by observing the history of computing.

What computer history taught us

The most important thing we learned since the 70s is that people do not want quicker and faster interfaces, they want better interfaces.

In the 80s, during the GUI revolution, they had critics too. GUI detractors claimed that the GUI was just a gimmick, or that real computer users preferred the command line. We should know better by now.

Critics were right in some points: GUIs weren't faster or more potent than the command line. However, this wasn't the winning argument.

GUIs won because the general public will always prefer a tool that is easier to use and understand than one which is more powerful but harder to use.

Are bots a command line?

See how there is a simile, but in fact, bots are the exact opposite from a command line.

Bot critics equate bots with CLIs and thus reach the conclusion that they are a step backward compared to GUIs. The main argument is that bots do not have discoverability, that is, users will not know what they're capable of since they don't have a menu with the available options. Whenever you're presented with a blank sheet, how to start using it?

However, I believe this comparison is wrong. People don't have a post-it note on their forehead stating their available commands, but we manage to work together, don't we?

We've been learning how to interact with people our whole lives; that's the point of living in society. When we walk into a coffee shop, we don't need an instruction manual to know how to ask for an espresso, or the menu, or request further assistance from the barista.

Bots can present buttons and images besides using text so, at the very least, they can emulate a traditional GUI. This is not a killer feature but contributes to refute the discoverability criticism and provide a transition period for users.

Bots lack metaphors, and that is their biggest asset

Bots will win because they speak natural language, even if it is only a dumbed down version. Their goal, at least in the beginning, is to specialize in one use case: ordering a pizza, requesting weather information, managing your agenda. After all, 90% of your interactions with your barista can be reduced to about ten sentences.

Being able to use natural language means there is no learning curve. And, for once in the history of computing, users will be able to use a UI that lacks what all other UIs required to function: metaphors.

This is critical since metaphors are what regular people hate about computers.

Who cares if one needs to press seventy buttons to order a pizza with a bot instead of just three with an app. People will use the product which is easier to use, not the one which saves them more keystrokes--not to mention that you can send commands with your voice. Didn't we learn from GUIs?

The death of the metaphor

Every metaphor has been moving both hardware and software towards a more human way of working.

Files, folders, commands, the mouse, windows, disk drives, applications, all these have been bright ideas that emerged at some point and then died when the next thing appeared. We even tried to style apps with leather and linen, buttons and switches to make them more understandable and relatable to the real world.

By definition, metaphors are a compromise. Both users and developers have a love-hate relationship with them, as they have been necessary to operate computers, but they also impose a barrier between thought and action.

Thanks to metaphors, this metallic thing which made funny noises and whose lights blinked continuously in 1975 has now evolved to a very easy to use smartphone. But that smartphone still clearly is a computer, with buttons, windows, and text boxes.

Bots, if done correctly, may be the end of the computing metaphor.

Metaphors have an expiration date

This is not intrinsic of computers.

At some point in time, a watch was a metaphor for counting time. We designed a device with a hand pointing to numbers from 1 to 12 and we matched it to the sun cycle. Advances in technology and culture have converted it in a fashion item and, while it still bears a metaphoric value, both four-year-olds and ninety-year-olds can use it without much thinking.

It's like driving: once you master it, your brain operates the car in the background. Your eyes still look at the road, but unless there is any unexpected issue, your conscious mind does not need to be driving.

I feel like the computing world, in general, is mature enough for this. Bots are a natural progression. They will not replace everything, like bicycles do not replace trucks. For most people, however, interacting with a computer as they do with a person is indeed the clincher

Ultimately, a tool is just a means to an end, and people want to do things, not mess with tools. Some of us engineers do, but we're in the minority.

Can we foresee the future?

So, why bots and not another UI?

I haven't reached this conclusion myself, strong as some arguments may be. I just follow the trend that thinkers have created.

The future is written in cyberpunk novels and philosophical AI movies, in music, in cinema. Not in blogs, not in engineer forums, not in the mind of some visionary CEO.

People will use what people want, and the best demand creation machine is imagination, in the form of art and mass media.

What people will want is what artists have represented: futuristic VR and human-like --but not too human-looking-- software

And now for the final question. Chat bots and expert systems have been around since the 1960s, so why is now the right time?

All paths lead to Rome

First and foremost, now is the right time because we believe it is. Everything is pushing towards chat UIs: big players, money, startups, the media.

Marketing and news articles can make people like things, hate things, and love things. People are told that they will be able to talk to their computers, and they've been baited with Siris and Alexas. Those are not perfect, but hint of a better future.

Consumers imagine a plan for a better future and generate demand. And demand is the driver of innovation. That's why in tech, self-fulfilled prophecies work, and predictions can be incredibly accurate even over hundreds of years

At a technical level, both hardware and software are advanced enough for real-time audio and text processing with natural language. APIs are everywhere, and some IA problems which were too hard ten years ago have been solved by either commercial packages or free software libraries

Finally, the customer's computing environment is as close to bots as it can be. Chat apps are the most used feature of a smartphone because they're straightforward and personal. People write or talk, and they get text or audio back. Not buttons, not forms, just a text box and a sentence.

My contrarian side feels a bit odd by tagging along the current big wave, but both rationally and by intuition I really do believe that now is the right moment. And I feel that I had to share my reasons.

For what it's worth, I'm putting my money where my mouth is, developing bots at Paradoxa. Who knows what will happen anyway. Undeniably, nobody has a crystal ball.

But isn't trying to predict the future enjoyable? Just imagining it is half the fun.

Tags: internet, startups, AI

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