Language and the Machine: How Software is Eating Our Words

Language and the Machine


SMW will explore the theme “Language and the Machine” through 22+ conferences that will take place throughout 2017. Social Media Week will take place in Hamburg, Lagos, and New York to kick off the year’s exploration in February.


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When people first encounter Amy, they’re impressed. Her employers call her the dream personal assistant — saving hours of work each day. Many describe her as kind and empathetic. It’s for these reasons that some people forget she isn’t human.

“Amy’s personality comes down to very subtle word choices and phrasings, and things like whether or not to use an exclamation point,” says Dennis R. Mortensen, the CEO and Founder of the company that created Amy. “We’ve grown the AI Interaction Design team. And it seems that our hard work has paid off. Many people who first encounter Amy mistake her for a human.”

The future of AI and chatbots is here, and like every technology before it, it’s going to greatly shake up the way we communicate, how we relate to one another and how we look at our culture, and will serve as a huge focus of SMW’s 2017 theme “Language and the Machine”.

Since the birth of the internet, the cell phone and the computer, we’ve continued to see this happen. We’ve seen new elements of language emerge, including GIFs, emojis, online video, voice commands, haptic responses and dozens of other new ways information and messages are currently sent and received.

In a 2011 Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, Marc Andreessen famously claimed that software was “eating the world.” In his piece he stated that over the next 10 years most industries will be disrupted by software in some form or another.

While it’s true that the onward march of innovation has disrupted and in some cases dismantled entire industries, we are also seeing an even more profound change, which we believe will result in the greatest shift in human communication in our history; instead of software “eating the world”, it now seems more like it’s “eating our words”.

To understand this at a more macro level, here are five trends that illustrate this change in communication:

  1. Video viewership is exploding, with Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook Live leading the way. Video formats are also changing and so as a medium expect some huge shifts in form and function

  3. Messaging is dominated by Facebook and WeChat, it’s growing rapidly, and evolving from simple text communication to become our new home screen with options for vivid self-expression and commerce

  5. Rise of voice interfaces because they’re fast, easy, personalized, hands-free, and cheap, with Google on Android now seeing 20% of searches from voice, and Amazon Echo sales growing as iPhone sales slow

  7. Rise of machine assisted communications, including Facebook’s Messenger app and new API for developers. Includes chat based commerce, customer support and mobile payments. In 2017 we might see the first friend-bots where people become attached the the bots they interact with each day

  9. New layers of immersion and new fields of reality never experienced before via AR and VR, which impacts how we communicate, how we play games, watch films and interact with doctors, teachers and how we travel the world

Reference: Mary Meeker’s essential 2016 Internet Trends Report

These trends and new platforms are helping us express and communicate in ways we’ve never been able to before. Today we can react to something on Facebook with an emoji, share a GIF, interact with chatbots as if we were having a conversation with a customer service agent. We can delegate the arduous back and forth of setting up a meeting via email to a human assisted a.i and we can order an Uber or change a song on Spotify by giving verbal commands to a box in our living room.

But how do we get from this, to someone, or a bot, like Amy? And how many people is that type of technology accessible to?

First off, the number of people who have access to this technology is growing.

According to the International Telecommunications Union, almost 4 billion people, more than half the world’s population, are digitally connected citizens. Estimates show that by 2022, there will be around 10 billion connected devices, millions of autonomous chatbots, trillions of sensors and networks so fast that communication will happen faster than humans can process a single thought.

And so we see a pattern emerge. More people are getting access to these evolving platforms and as elements of language and communication change within these platforms, we inevitably become more reliant on that technology.

It is this reliance which will have the greatest impact on how we function as humans day-to-day, which, in the context of what this means for business, raises an important question: will businesses and organizations connect with customers and community members more effectively if humans were taken out of the equation? That’s where technology like Amy comes in.

At the B2B level, WorkFusion, an AI company for enterprise operations is attempting to transform the way organizations function by removing the inefficiencies that exist within human-to-human interactions.

Adam Devine, WorkFusion’s VP of Marketing said “We’re a ways off from entirely autonomous human to machine communication systems, but by pairing natural language processing (NLP) with machine learning, conversational bots or ‘chatbots’ we can now field complex requests from customers on websites and not only credibly respond but also ask questions to achieve more context to execute a request, like collecting pay or opening an account.”

He went on to explain how radically different this is from systems like Siri, which don’t learn over time or understand context.

“In a semi-autonomous chatbot system, Human call center agents validate responses where the machine has low accuracy confidence or step in if it cannot process a request,” Devine said. “This ‘human-in-the-loop’ approach is how machines learn from humans and becomes increasingly autonomous in communication systems. Standard Bank and other global financial institutions are rolling this out before the end of 2017.”

Dan Reich, the co-founder of Troops, a Slackbot, agreed with this, expanding to share how the machine is becoming more human. Reich said that the more human AI becomes, the better trusted it is by the rest of us.

“As time goes on, the tools we use at work will begin to look less like traditional software and more like a conversation with a human being. It will look the movies like C3PO from Star Wars to Jarvis from Iron Man,” Reich said. “Chatbots represent that new ‘invisible’ layer between human beings and technology and each chatbot will look and feel different depending on the problem they are trying to solve.”

Reich gave the examples of airline companies and car companies, which use chatbots to help answer customer questions. Other companies successfully using chatbots, he said, are those that focus on efficiency and creating a better workflow — such as his company Troops.

But there is another aspect to AI that needs to be addressed and that is it’s relationship with the human worker. Anand Kulkarni, Co-Founder and Chief Scientist, at LeadGenius, explains that there is a delicate balance to be struck between the two.

“Advances in AI have a lot of promise for business-to-consumer interaction. The low cost means that companies can interact with larger numbers of clients faster and more easily than ever before. That’s a good thing, with a lot of advantages for businesses and consumers alike – we can see a future where long wait times on a telephone are replaced with a quick back-and-forth text exchange with an AI chat agent, available 24/7,” Kulkarni said.

“However,” he added, “there’s a real risk in having humans removed from the equation completely in something as open-ended as customer interaction. Failure modes in automatic systems can diminish trust in a business far worse than a long hold time. We’ve seen some high-profile failures in autonomous machine learning systems recently — the Tesla autopilot crash.”

Kulkami said that consumers are “far less tolerant” of robot glitches and the extra touch of human, is extremely valuable.

It’s certainly a difficult and unprecedented balance to strike and it is being navigated in real-time as such technologies evolve daily. And as the number of people who have access to connected technologies increases, so does the pace of change in regards to how we communicate with each other and with the technology itself.

Sonny Caberwal is the founder and CEO of Bond, a company that uses bots and AI to recreate your handwriting making is possible to send a personal handwritten note from your mobile phone. He believes that while the march towards algorithmically driven communication is inevitable, we should work hard to preserve the human touch. “Our research shows that the most thoughtful- and effective- messages reflect a unique insight on a relationship created by two people- an employee and a customer. So while algorithms and machines can dramatically augment human capabilities, we don’t believe they’ll more effectively drive human connection.”

Sonny may be right, however the world is being eaten, chewed on and consumed as if it were software’s last meal and the voraciousness of its appetite is unabating. So as we have seen industries transform and be reinvented we are also seeing our words, language and the fabric of human interaction face similar levels of disruption.

As we have learned from, Troops and WorkFusion and LeadGenius, a great deal of this change will happen at both a micro and macro level as enterprises apply intelligence layers to create efficiencies within their complex internal systems and as individuals recognize that time can be saved by delegating menial tasks such as scheduling a meeting or ordering pizza to perfectly amenable and always reliable AI assistants.

But we must proceed with some caution because to accept AI into the conversation we must be prepared that what we say and how we say it will change and morph into something new, something which could have an irrevocable effect on our culture and what it means to be human.

Or it could just mean that we get to spend more time posting pictures on Facebook and less time dealing with call center operatives. Thank you Amy and the bots.

SMW will explore the theme “Language and the Machine” through 22+ conferences that will take place throughout 2017. Social Media Week will take place in Hamburg, Lagos, and New York to kick off the year’s exploration in February.

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