Sunday, February 19, 2017

People are boring - so what chance chatbots?

The BBC's Dave Lee writes:
"It's been nearly a year since Microsoft's Satya Nadella proclaimed "bots are the new apps".

"Yet despite the promise of a revolution in how we interact with services and companies online, progress has been utterly miserable - the vast majority of chatbots are gimmicky, pointless or just flat out broken. ...

The CNN news chatbot, for example, is worse at giving you the news than any of CNN’s other products. ...

"Google's AI-powered messaging app Allo, since being launched to much fanfare last year, has failed to make even a minor dent in a messaging app market dominated by Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger.

"And that's because there's no compelling reason to bother with Allo. None of its features - like asking it for directions - provide enough of a benefit beyond what you'd get from just tapping in your request the "old fashioned" way. Users have an incredibly short fuse for chatbots not working exactly as we expect."

We have a special name for those few people who we (mostly) don't find boring.


We don't much enjoy extended interactions with random folk. People who, nevertheless:
  • have been completely socialised into our culture for decades, 
  • come with detailed background knowledge of the world,
  • are endowed with common sense and full conversational abilities.
So why did the AI companies think we'd enjoy interacting with chatbots, which are cognitively impoverished in every conceivable way?

It's a good question and I'm not sure of the answer.
- Were they over-impressed by their mighty artificial neural nets? But they're only fantastic recognisers and classifiers, a far cry from artificial general intelligences (AGI).

- Did they think that we're all keen to have conversational, hands-free interaction with our pocket devices? In fact that's socially way too intrusive most of the time, plus we're talking to conversational muppets.

- Was there a belief that in some narrow, vertical and tightly-constrained domains there might be a niche for a conversational interface? There's almost certainly something to that - but we don't yet know what.
My own feeling is that the successful mass consumer chatbot can be nothing less than a truly effective virtual friend. To that end it will have to posses AGI and be malleable to your own personality and 'friend-preferences'.

We'll have starships before we have that; I haven't seen the first clue we're on that road.


All of the above presupposes peer-relationships, typically with kids or adults. Those conversations - most of the time! - exhibit an irreducible core of rational and relevant 'aboutness'.

So hard to replicate for an artefact.

But there are natural agents around without much cognitive competence: babies, small children and pets. The bond here is emotional .. and so is the interaction.

So if you're in the business of designing chatbots which could conceivably bond with your customers, you might want to take note .. .*


* In the old days, we called them 'dolls', and they came without batteries.


  1. So is there a suggestion here that the current AI paradigm of Neural Nets is being shown to be inadequate via the failure of its Chatbot application?

    So a planner driven conversational chatbot might give some more insight into an alternative (?)(!) It will be interesting to find out whether even that is "enough" or whether something else is still missing (apart from lots of data).

    1. Artificial neural net designs are today a bunch of rather generic recognising technologies: in the data lies the power.

      There's a limit, however, to raw empiricism. The brain is not one giant, undifferentiated neural net - it has modules.

      My proposal is a kind of executable specification. Who knows, such things may give insights in the implementation domain for the next generation of ANNs?


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