The Future of User Experience Is Conversational

“We have to understand how to break the gap of the language of the machine, which is intelligent, and the human, which is also intelligent. It's almost that we have to be able to speak the same language or to try to understand each other.”

We are developing some seriously powerful algorithms. Daily, our machines march up and along the intelligence curve, figuring out patterns within large amounts of data, telling us the best routes to take to avoid traffic and managing our health files. The future is already here—we are swimming in artificial intelligence.

Yet our user experience doesn’t seem to be keeping up. The human-machine relationship is still awkward and screen based. Yes, UX development has enabled our internet experience to go from a text based burden to a virtual wonderland, however the recent improvements in AI require a different approach. It has become very clear that in order for us to take the next leap in our technological age, our machines need to learn how to talk—and talk well.

Siri is an early prototype and she improves with each release. Alexa is also a step forward. However, while each of these AIs can take commands and give a pleasant, even sometimes quirky response, they’re not truly conversational. What our machines need are personalities that not only speak to us, but give humans a sense of well-being. We don’t truly trust our machines, they feel like black boxes filled with strange magic that could destroy us if only they wanted to, and this is because our user experience is lacking in the conversation department.

If we ever want to truly integrate AI with human life, we’re going to need to look at the user experience in a whole new way. Rather than have a web portal to show people around, machines will need to have a personality that leads us through dialogue.

Enter Chatbots.

Chatbots currently exist primarily as fun toys and gadgets floating around the web, but soon, every product will need one as its user interface. Take the truly hands-free automotive experience. Right now the onboard software for most cars includes a navigation system, stereo and Bluetooth to access the mobile device of the driver. While we can give verbal commands to each of these applications, we still have to manually select buttons in order to operate them. Want to hear your voice mail? You need to be in the correct mode, which usually means looking down at your device or a screen! This can only lead to distraction.

What if instead, when the car powers up, a Chatbot begins the experience, asking you how you are and where you’d like to go? The Chatbot would then give you the navigation towards your destination as well as road conditions and could even let you know if any of your friends have checked in on FB in locations near your route. The next step is telling the bot to play your voicemail and then what radio station you want, or even launch a playlist in Spotify.

This seem too futuristic? It shouldn’t. This technology exists, it simply requires us to think of the user experience as conversational. Voice and speech recognition software have made leaps and bounds the past few years with regards to quality. The next step is creating conversational AIs that can handle commands as well as converse with us, providing a satisfying human-machine interaction.

The need to rethink our user experience as conversational became clear to me when I was researching conversational AIs while writing my second novel, eHuman Deception, in which a main character, the AMMA, is an AI. I wanted the human characters in my story to have satisfying dialogue with her, not only because that’s what my readers would want, but also to showcase that the human-machine relationship doesn’t have to be dreadful. It can actually be quite satisfying. As my research progressed, I realized that while Siri and Alexa are quite wondrous, they’re not worthy of being characters in a novel, which to me means they haven’t yet passed the true conversational test.

The next generation of conversational AIs need to be novel worthy characters that lead humans to believe that they’re trustworthy. Not so they can take over the world, but so that we can truly partner with our machines to remake the world of the 21st century.

And good conversation is key.

Good thing I'm so naturally chatty :-)

Protecting the Cultural Commons: From Open Lands to Open Internet

"We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune."  ~ Theodore Roosevelt

I absolutely love backpacking, from the backcountry of the Klamath National Forest, located just west of Mt. Shasta, to the Black Sands beach in Kings Range National Forest. California is full of wild places and spaces to explore in freedom and privacy. To be out in nature, free from all civilization, is a gift.

Long ago, this was the way of the world. All our land was open and free. Cultures moved from one place to another, following the herds of bison, or the warmth of the sun. Like birds, humans were able to explore, hunt and move with the seasons. All land was shared and the idea of owning a tree or a lake was absurd.

Until approximately 12,000 years ago, when farming began. Soon land became someone’s domain to care for and till. A tribe would share a plot of land, but not with other tribes. This gave way in time to kings owning lands and soon hunting was prohibited to commoners. Only the royals, and their court, could roam the land freely and enjoy its wonders. Where land once was sustenance, killing the animals now became sport. Fast forward to today, where virtually every single piece of land is plotted, owned and private. Walking across the nation without the use of roads is impossible without trespassing in some way. Indeed, what was once considered insane is now our reality: every tree is owned. Every part of nature is a commodity.

None of this is lost on me as I hike the Pacific Crest Trail with my husband, or scale the Nevada Falls in Yosemite. I know that this part of land is mine to cross because legislation made it so. I have Theodore Roosevelt to thank for this opportunity to explore the valleys, mountains and rivers of this beautiful country. In 1883, Roosevelt arrived in the badlands looking for some game to hunt. Unfortunately for him, he was too late. The last herds of bison were gone, having been decimated by hide hunters and disease. As he spent time in the region, he was alarmed by the damage that was being done to the land and it’s wildlife. He also knew that it was only due to privilege that he had access to the most beautiful places in our country. Thus, when he became president in 1901, he used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the U.S. Forest Service. During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt protected approximately 230,000,000 acres of public land.

Thanks Teddy, I needed that.

In our day, these commons are important. They are places where we can be free with nature and ourselves. They provide a space where all are on common ground and wealth and politics mean nothing. But these are not the only commons worth protecting.

The digital world is also a cultural commons. We’re at the beginning of this age, creating and making a virtual world where at the moment, the playing field is open. All who can gain access to this commons are welcome to express themselves and share their content. The internet is a virtual commons similar to the national forest system, which is our natural commons. At the moment, we’re like natives, roaming freely within the digital world we’re creating.

But our freedom within the digital commons is threatened. Miners, farmers, kings and elites all want a share. They want to own the hardware that provides the broadband, control it, and give it rules and fees that they can make their own. What is now open and accessible to all is slowly being eroded by business interests, not unlike the business interests that cordoned off the land, rendering it unavailable to those who once used it for food and solitude.

The time has come once again for a president to step up and use his power to protect a most glorious heritage. The internet, and all the technology springing forth from it, is an inheritance and we must act to show we’re worthy of it as a nation. Like Roosevelt, President Barack Obama could create legislation that keeps net neutrality in tact. He could protect it from pure economics and instead see the use of the internet as more than yet another aspect of our world to turn into a commodity.

Like nature, the internet surrounds us and provides us with an opportunity to share ourselves with others. It’s a cultural commons, a place where stories live and news is reported. Allowing businesses to own it and turn it into only commerce is like logging a virgin forest—we can do it, but we loose a bit of ourselves in the process. If we had no free, open land, we’d be nothing more than caged animals.

If we have no free, open internet, we’ll loose yet another frontier for human expression. Roosevelt saw businesses in his day ruining the land he so loved, changing its landscape and virtually destroying entire species of animals. I don’t think it’s a leap to say that something similar could happen with the digital landscape if economic needs are the only ones we cater to.

If Roosevelt protected 230,000,000 acres of public land during his presidency, how many gigabytes of public bandwidth could Obama protect?

For the good fortune of our nation, and the cultural commons we need in order to share in our humanity, I think it’s time our leaders stepped up conservation efforts in the digital landscape. For if they don’t, business will claim every byte, and soon trespassing wil

In Anticipation of the California Primary--Why Bernie Sanders is a Great Choice for Futurists!!!

Senator Bernie Sanders in Santa Cruz, CA 5/31/16. Photo cred Jillian Chelson

This week I had the honor of attending a small and intimate Bernie Sanders rally in Santa Cruz, California. I was impressed to say the least. Bernie is every bit as inspiring in person as he appears in his advertisements. And while his nomination from the Democratic Party still seems like a longshot, given the super delegate phenomenon, winning California is key to the longevity of his progressive movement.

“As goes California, so goes the nation.” We’re the western edge of civilization. I’ve lived here now for nine years and I must say, there’s no place else like it in the entire country. California is leading the way on environmental stewardship, health care, film, music, entertainment and of course, technology. Silicon Valley is where the future is born. With the California Primary in only a few days, I thought it was important to re-print an article I wrote a few weeks ago about why futurists should consider Bernie Sanders for president.

Futurists are often seen as Libertarian or Republican, but many of those I’ve met here in California seem to also be quite progressive. They care about technology as well as the health of the planet. They want to automate our lives, but are concerned about technological unemployment and seek alternative monetary systems such as universal basic income.

California is filled with people with an eye to the future, and it’s to them that I now write my plea—next week you’ll have a choice, Hillary or Bernie. Which will you choose?

Government’s job is to protect the people. Most think that only means foreign policy. But to this I’d add investing in the infrastructure that enables our society to thrive and navigate the huge economic changes of the Information Age. For make no mistake, what domestic policies we chose to implement right now will determine what type of digital world we live in. One in which all of our society benefits from the technological advancements, or one in which only a few hold all the keys and the rest are left to fend for themselves. Because like it or not, while the rest of America is fighting about gays, abortion, guns and nationalism, technology is progressing and trust me, none of those things will matter one bit in the next evolution of humanity.

After looking at all the candidates, I came to a surprising conclusion—that an old socialist from Vermont is actually the best candidate at this point in time when it comes to furthering our advancement as a technological society. He might not even understand half of what’s happening in Silicon Valley or NASA, but his platform contains some important things for all futurists to consider. And yes, many futurists do make more than $250,000 a year, so they might not like to hear what Bernie has to say. But before you vote merely to keep your taxes lower, please, if you care at all about the technological advancement of our world, consider Bernie for the following three reasons.

1.      Bernie is against nuclear war and for reduced military spending

We are now at the point that technically, we could annihilate this planet. That we haven’t yet is miraculous. We are officially our own greatest threat. Nuclear disarmament is more important than ever, as well as the reigning in of military spending and investment in artificially intelligent drones and soldier-robots. In his article in Politico Magazine, Lawrence Hobbs says this about Bernie, “Twenty-five years after the Cold War, there is…no need to spend a trillion dollars to modernize our nuclear arsenal, and Sanders has even pledged to cut $100 billion in nuclear spending over the next decade. Instead the United States should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which Sanders told me he would push for, in order to ban all nuclear explosions in all environments, for both military and civilian purposes.”

Read more:

As a very practical man reminded me on FB thread, “Avoiding nuclear war is the most important thing we can vote for.” I’d also add that reducing the amount of money spent by our government on all technologies of destruction is a part of that. Bernie is absolutely for both of these things.

2.       Bernie is for universal health care, inexpensive higher education and has even said that a universal basic income is something to consider

If all our citizens have access to health care and education as well as a basic income for food and shelter, then our technology is freed from the economic constraints that currently hold it back. Why are we still using dirty coal? Because of jobs. Those in the industry won’t let go because they can’t care for their families without their income. This is but one example. But imagine if they didn’t have to fear. If instead when one technology makes an older one obsolete, the worker won’t starve or end up on the street, but instead will continue to live and have care and be able to afford to go back to school and retrain to the new technology? What a different world it would be if when a life-saving technology is invented, all can have access to it because our health care system works in our favor, not for profits. Any technically advanced society would use its ingenuity to solve the problems of homelessness, hunger and health, and Bernie’s policies can be seen as a path in this direction. It will take a lot of hard work for us to move from our profit-driven economics to one where technology is used to provide the most basic needs to all of us at the least cost, but the time to start is now and Bernie’s campaign is forcing us to begin the discussion.

Why would a futurist care at all that everyone is provided for? Because technology is intimately linked to a work-less future—one in which automation will eliminate millions of jobs, with nothing new to replace them. This means an unemployment rate never seen before. To me, it’s a matter of national security that we ensure ALL our citizens are cared for and that our humanity is sacred and worthy of such an investment. Too many unemployed and impoverished people, and America spirals into third world status. Bob Marley put it so well, “A hungry man is an angry man.” Within thirty years we will either have a plethora of hungry, angry men, or we’ll have the infrastructure in place to ensure health care, food, housing and education for all. I’d rather remain a first world country than resist helping one another.

3.       Bernie is not affiliated with religion

This is pretty huge. There’s never been a real contender for the American presidency who wasn’t affiliated with Christianity. I want to be clear, I’m not an atheist and do have a spiritual practice, but I also believe that organized religion is behind many of the dire issues we face in our world. Most wars are fought with a belief that we are agents of God cleaning up civilization. Apocalypse politics are practiced both within US foreign policy as well as within terrorist groups such as ISIS.

In addition, religious fundamentalism is generally against technology. Scientists throughout the centuries have been silenced by those whose Gods don’t approve of their findings. This is a problem that we can no longer afford to tolerate. Humanity can and will destroy the planet if it continues to operate under the concept of Divine Manifestation. The separation of church and state ensures liberty for all. The freedom to practice a religious devotion of your choice without fear of being burned at the stake. The freedom to practice family planning and birth control (if you’re a woman). The freedom to pursue science, not with wild evil abandonment, but with rational, moral and logical eyes and without the fear of oh, yes, being burned at the stake. That our leaders still have to pass some Christian God litmus test should no longer be happening in the 21st century.

A technically advanced society hasn’t lost their wonder and awe with nature, the cosmos or even the divine, but they have lost their need for religious dogma that controls their lives and tells them how to live.

I know, Bernie isn’t perfect and I wish he would have run as a third party and not within the corrupt binary primary system. But for futurists, he’s actually a very good choice. He’s the only candidate who has respect for the harm and destruction of the military industrial complex as well as organized religion in our world. Combined with his desire to use our technology to wisely care for all of us with regards to education and health care, I think he’s the one to help us take the next steps in excellence. This is not creating a nanny state—rather Bernie’s policies help us prepare for that time when our technology takes us into the post-work future. If we ignore these very important issues, we do so at our own peril.