Conversational interfaces bring about “Social Superorganism”

Imagination, thought and will make deeds, and by our deeds we make ourselves. All that we are is the result of our thoughts; it is founded on our thoughts, made up of our thoughts.” — Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Mind, 1921

If, as Bertrand Russell wrote, “All that we are is the result of our thoughts” improvements to the Internet may offer the increased interactions that enable all human beings the opportunity to improve our abilities to consciously manipulate images, symbols, ideas and theories that give us the “laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems and come up with new ideas, in other words to enhance ourmental workspace.

That can mean following the advice of Kurt Vonnegut and “Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to ‘experience becoming’, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

It can also mean simply enjoying the extraordinary beauty of Vincent van Gogh’s Irises

The history of the Internet begins with the development of electronic computers in the 1950s. The first message was sent over the ARPANET in 1969 from computer science Professor Leonard Kleinrock’s laboratory at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to the network’s second node at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Yet researchers are just beginning to understand the effects of interactions with what some are now calling the “global brain”.

There’s now a majority of the world’s population using the Internet (52%), it varies by geographical region. Not surprisingly the region with the largest percentage of the population using the Internet is North America with 88%. Africa has the smallest number of users with 31%. A more revealing statistic may be the fact that use of the Internet grew by a mind-boggling 976% worldwide between 2000 and 2017. The growth in Africa is even more mind-boggling at 8,500%.

While Africa has the smallest percentage of it’s population (i.e. “penetration rate”) using the Internet in 2017 (31%), it has the second largest population of any geographic region of the world. With growth rates like these and the average price of a mobile phone declining by 65% in the last ten years, it shouldn’t be long before the entire population of the world will be able to exchange information with each other. In fact, Asia, with the largest population (4 billion), is growing Internet use at the fastest rate (1,600%).

The “social network” has been one of the most dramatic outgrowths of the Internet’s expansion. A social network is a grouping of actors (such as individuals or organizations), sets of dyadic ties, and other interactions that come together on the Internet to exchange information.

This Comscore chart shows engagement in terms of time spent using social networks vs. reach among the millennial demographic. It’s interesting to see how Facebook dominates in terms of time, but it’s also interesting to see how time among more technology-oriented groups like Snapchat (image messages) and Instagram (photos), are also growing in terms of average minutes of use per visitor.

The most popular social network worldwide is clearly, Facebook, with more than 1.86 billion monthly active users. If anything speaks to the popularity of social networks it’s their growth among users of mobile devices. In January 2017, mobile social media accounted for 58 percent of the time spent on social networks. Twelve new active mobile social users are added every second, that’s 1 Million per day.

The millennial demographic is important because younger people still appear to feel more at home in cyberspace than their elders do. Fifty-two percent (52%) of Americans between the ages of 18 and 49 say they log on every day, but frequency of daily use begins to significantly decline after age 50, and drops dramatically after age 65 — just 17% of Americans aged 65 and older use the Internet on a daily basis.

Regardless of age, however, Internet users’ most frequent activity is reading and sending e-mail. Sixty-five percent of adult Internet users check their e-mail frequently. One activity — instant messaging (or IM) — stands out as the domain of the youngest Internet users. Thirty-six percent of Internet users between the ages of 18 and 29 say they use instant messaging frequently, a development not lost on Facebook. Facebook Messenger (sometimes abbreviated as “Messenger“) is an instant messaging service and software application.

Facebook is using it’s stature not only to advance it’s own use but also to advance the use of the internet itself. According to Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice-president of engineering, Facebook’s new mission is “to connect everybody in the world” and “to “motivate the industry to move faster with improvements “on core Internet technology”. Facebook’s “Aquila” drone program uses a linked network of high flying drones. It plans to provide internet access to large rural areas throughout the world which currently have limited Internet access.

“the emerging story of the 21st Century is the interconnection of our own minds into a networked state. We’re no longer drilling holes in the walls of our houses for telephone wires. It’s ourselves we’re plugging in. — Tom Chatfield, BBC, “Are you ‘over-connected?” 10 March 2015

Facebook drones, which have a wingspan of a Boeing 737, will operate between 60,000 ft (18km) and 90,000 ft (27km) — above the altitude of commercial airplanes — so they will not be affected by weather. They will climb to their maximum height during the day, before gliding slowly down to their lowest ebb at night, to conserve power when their solar panels are not receiving a charge.

A development that may be an out growth of the Internet’s capabilities and all of our “social networking” is what some are now calling a Social Superorganism. It’s an old idea, dating back at least to the ancient Greeks, that the whole of human society can be viewed as a single organism. It should not be that far fetched an idea.

Philosophers and scientists have long puzzled over where human imagination comes from. In other words, what makes humans able to create art, invent tools, think scientifically and perform other incredibly diverse behaviors? The answer, Dartmouth researchers conclude in a new study, lies in a widespread neural network — the brain’s “mental workspace” — that consciously manipulates images, symbols, ideas and theories and gives humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems and come up with new ideas. Dartmouth’s findings, titled “Network structure and dynamics of the mental workspace,” appeared the week of Sept. 16 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It should not be surprising if the emerging Social Superorganism results in enhanced human imagination.

Chatbots are artificial intelligence systems that we interact with via text or voice interface. The introduction of chatbots has brought us to the beginning of a new era in technology: the era of the conversational interface. It’s an interface that soon won’t require a screen or a mouse to use. There will be no need to click or swipe. A conversational interface (CI) is a hybrid UI that interacts with users combining chat, voice or any other natural language interface with graphical UI elements like buttons, images, menus, videos, etc. Think of First Officer Michael Burnham ( Sonequa Martin-Green) “speaking with” U.S.S. Discovery’s computer on the new Star Trek.

Interaction with the global brain will likely be with chatbots passing a “Turing test“, in which the they will exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Chatbots and a conversational interface will open the expanded Internet to even more users who may have not used it in the past.

We’re already at the cusp of a sharp rise in devices that have no screen but do have conversational voice controls, such as the Amazon Echo. Smart home and Internet-of-things (IoT) objects that respond to users’ voices will improve and become more intuitive with further iterations and wider adoption. According to Gartner, natural language chat-bot visual personal assistant (VPA) interfaces include:

  • Amazon’s Alexa,
  • Google Assistant,
  • Apple Siri
  • Microsoft Cortana

They will power the market for chatbot technology from just $360 million in 2015 (almost entirely dominated by the Echo) to more than $2 billion in 2020.

The advent of these natural language processing chatbots are bringing us toward an exciting time for technology. Thanks to chatbots, we are currently no longer sandboxed into one graphical area at a time to carry out our daily actions. Users no longer have to exit their messaging app to open their mobile browser and plug in a URL to make a dinner reservation, in the process of clicking a dozen or so graphical areas. We’ll now be able to chat with friends, then chat with the restaurant’s bot in the same digital space to reserve a table, uniting an entire evening’s services into one conversation.

What´s interesting is that in the case of a conversational interface (CI), information is provided progressively under user´s command. A CI also provides one clear call to action for each user interaction with the system. In this way, CI will increase user attention and provide information only if needed. The intention is to generate improved natural use and user attention.

Through the ongoing study of conversations and dialogue patterns, bots will advance to better anticipate customer desires (perhaps even before the customer is aware of them). Statistically generated machine learning will work with a conversational interface to provide immediate knowledge upon a human being’s voice request.

However, the Global brain will likely arrive with it’s own type of “headaches”. We need to ask, as the BBC’s Tom Chatfield has, “Are you Over-connected?” Chatfield writes, “to be human is to crave connection but can our talent betray us?” Is it possible to be ‘over-connected’ — and, if so, what does it mean for our future? Drawing a line between habit and pathology means deciding what we mean by normal, healthy and acceptable behavior. If technology excels at one thing, it’s at shifting old norms faster than even the nimblest neophyte can handle.”

Jasmine Boussem also asks “Are We Too Connected to Connect?”, Is the quality of our communication becoming shallower as it becomes broader? We want to connect with so many people at the same time that we may fail to give each one the proper attention. Does efficiency negate intimacy? Are we connecting or simply connected?

We’ve grown accustomed to the fact that shared physical space no longer means shared experience. Everywhere we go, we carry with us options far more “enticing” than the place and moment we happen to be standing within: access to friends, family, news, views, scandals, celebrity, work, leisure, information, rumour. This is information we cannot seem to let go of, even momentarily.”

Digital technologies, including conversations with chatbots, mean relationships with others and the world are extended and amplified beyond anything we’ve known, even ten years ago. We outsource memories, routines, habits and responsibilities to obscure hardware and gratefully automate everything from route-finding and research to recommending movies.
 Boussem says “ We’re pouring hours and minutes not simply into a screen, but into the most comprehensive networking of human minds ever achieved, each one more powerful than the fastest computer.” It may be hard to disconnect, but we can seek better to control who we connect with and what we ask of each other.

With all that has gone on with the Internet in the last two decades, it seems outlandish to think “we’ve only just begun”. We’re about to make perhaps the greatest leap in the history of the Internet when we are joined by millions of artificial intelligence-enabled machines and they start to interact with human users in what may sometimes seem like very inhuman ways.

In April of 2017, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook’s grand ten-year roadmap, showing the company’s trajectory from now through 2026. Here’s the slide he used to illustrate his vision.

It points the way to Facebook’s ideal future: A world where everybody’s connected to the internet, where we talk to artificially intelligent computers as if they were human, and perhaps boldest of all, virtual reality goggles are as common as our smartphones, allowing us to connect with people across the world as intimately as if they were in the same room. Zuckerberg recently showed off “Social VR,” using a combination of the Oculus Rift headset and a 360-degree camera to mash together virtual reality and the real world like never before.

Not to be left out, Google has also been reframing itself from a mobile first to an AI first company for the last year or so. This is what tech analyst, Peter Bihr, had to say about Google’s efforts related to AI, “based on software (search/discovery, plus Android) now there’s also hardware that’s more integrated.

Android is the biggest smartphone platform as well as the basis for lots of connected products, so Google’s hardware isn’t the only game in town. How this works out with partners over time remains to be seen. That said, this new structure means Google can push its software capabilities to the limits through it’s own hardware (phones, smart home hubs, headphones, etc.) and then aim for the stars with AI-leveraged services in a way I don’t think we’ll see from competitors anytime soon”. Google recently held its own big event. And while that presentation was ostensibly to introduce new hardware, it also gave us a glimpse of how Google is thinking about its own future — and the ways in which Facebook’s 10-year strategy overlap with Google’s.

Google and Facebook’s core businesses couldn’t be more different yet in many important ways, Facebook and Google are already going punch-for-punch in a fight that’s likely to add millions of new users to the Internet many of which will be AI-enabled machines.

Google used machine learning to transform Google Translate, one of its more popular services — and now machine learning is poised to reinvent computing itself.

The emergence of a Social Superorganism, where interactions are much more “human-like”, is most likely to dramatically change our thoughts and consequently, as Bertrand Russell foretold, one hundred years ago, who human beings are.



  4. Linda Lyons “Internet Use/ What’s Age Got to Do With It?”, Gallup, MARCH 16, 2004


6. Facebook launches Aquila solar-powered drone for internet access | Technology | The Guardian







13. Huffington Post, May 25, 2011



16. The Great A.I. Awakening — The New York Times

17. Apple’s Bet On AR & The Future of UI Design — IoT For All — Medium



Originally published at on October 12, 2017.