INSIGHT

Blurring the line between man and machine

Life imitating tech

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

So claimed the Irish polymath, Oscar Wilde, in an 1889 essay entitled The Decay of Lying. He wasn’t the first scribe to ponder the relationship between life and art. A certain Greek philosopher called Aristotle blazed the trail.

Leap forward to the present day and things have taken an altogether stranger turn. Now that the age of digital disruption has well and truly dawned, have we arrived at a place where life is imitating tech?

Yes, says TechCrunch in a thought-provoking article entitled Real Humans. Natasha Lomas claims technology is shaping not only our behaviour, but our language.

“We see this in the willing stockpiling of techie jargon into individual vocabularies (the Androids, the iPhones, the lesser-seen Surface Books),” writes Natasha, “the new word coinages (blockchain), the new and expanding uses for existing words (a ‘message’ is a noun; ‘message me’ an imperative verb asking someone to send you an IM); the creative portmanteaus (glasshole is a particularly good one), the tech-obsessed idioms (I don’t have bandwidth for that right now), and so on and on.”

Citing a recent communication trumpeting the collaboration of “real humans” and smart technology for a concierge travel assistant service, Natasha probes the significance of the term. She argues it implies that eventually online interaction with “humans” will in fact be with sophisticated machines. Will we be able to tell real humans from their unreal counterparts?

Not if the raft of startups aimed at perfecting the chatbot have anything to do with it. From Domino’s to H&M and RBS, customers are already routinely conversing with chatbots with varying degrees of success. This writer recalls a recent system crash at Deliveroo, during which the live chat option became frustratingly dumbstruck, its silence suggesting the chat was anything but live, and probably powered by a bot.

The proliferation of chatbot startups has attracted considerable attention. In naming its 25 ones to watch, Venture Radar asks if we are “about to enter the age of the chatbot”.

Over at British chatbot firm Ubisend’s blog, they’ve picked “15 of the Hottest Chatbot Startups That Are Winning”. Naturally Ubisend gets a namecheck, but so do other British leaders in the field, including Spixii, which is targeting the insurance industry, and Cyra, which is developing chatbots for use in recruitment.

You could say it’s a bit of a crowded market, but Ubisend blogger, Dean Withey, writes that, true to the irreverent spirit of the age of digital disruption, it’s the increasing availability of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that is fuelling the march of the chatbot.

It’s not just startups hoping chatbots will become cashbots in the near future. Google, Amazon and IBM are all attempting to create machines that accurately mimic human language.

Unsurprisingly, so too is Facebook. Wired notes the social media giant has tasked a team of researchers to develop chattier chatbots. The scheme, known as ParlAI, is open source so that others can get involved and help to generate the volume of data required to produce a chatbot that is indistinguishable from us “real humans”.

Disrupting a market by purchasing an influential startup is something we have written about here on Insights. Perhaps we inspired the movers and shakers at Microsoft, which in January acquired the Canadian startup Maluuba. The firm’s motto, “Teaching machines to think, reason and communicate,” sums up its raison d'être.

In a piece about the takeover, TechCrunch reports that, “Maluuba’s focus has been on improving computer systems’ ability to comprehend what they’re reading, to understand natural dialog between individuals and to get better at tasks like memory, common-sense reasoning and finding information when they have a gap in their own knowledge.”

The race to perfect chatbot interaction is well and truly on, but who succeeds first is anyone’s guess. Such is the buzz around the technology that various chatbot-focussed summits and conferences are taking place around the globe, including this one in Berlin.

It’s clear that as AI’s capabilities increase, the line between “real humans” and “chatbot humans” will become even more blurred. Just as we are influencing technology, technology is influencing us. Who knows where the symbiotic relationship will end. 

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NEWS / INSIGHT