The monumental rise of conversational interfaces

Before we go onto describing the rise of conversational interfaces, let’s first establish what a conversational interface is. Conversational interfaces enable users to command the computer with plain text English (via normal messages, or chatbots) or voice commands, instead of graphic elements. These interfaces often emulate human-to-human conversations, which makes for more natural conversations and a more natural interaction.

To many, conversational interfaces are described as the next big digital frontier. Until now the only way to interact with computers and computer devices was by making use of graphic elements. But now computers are learning to communicate with us through voice and text. The next digital frontier will involve a shift in the way humans interact with machines around them. As more devices become connected to the internet, the number of devices humans will be able to communicate with will increase exponentially. We are already able to control our homes using our voices, we will soon be able to control other machines and appliances either through our voice or via messaging.

There are really two main types of chat interfaces. A text chatbot and a voice assistant (which is most cases can actually still be classified as a chatbot). In layman terms, a chatbot is a computer program that can have text based conversations with a human. The notion that a program can have a conversation sounds futuristic, but the truth is most messaging platforms already host thousands of chatbots that are talking to humans everyday. Chatbots are available on platforms such as Slack, Messenger, Skype and Telegram. A voice assistant is a software program (or agent) that can perform particular tasks or services in response to one’s voice. The specific tasks or services that these voice assistants can perform is expanding rapidly.

“I see speech approaching a point where it could become so reliable that you can just use it and not even think about it,” claims Andrew Ng, an associate professor at Stanford University and a chief scientist at Baidu. “The best technology is often invisible, and as speech recognition becomes more reliable, I hope it will disappear into the background.” Ng goes onto say.

The graphical user interface, which was then and is still now referred to as GUI is seen as the ‘gold standard’ in a computing world, whereby pointing, clicking and typing form the primary interface. This is what allows humans to interact with the software on a personal computer. This for a long time was the only way computers could understand a human’s intent. The way we interact with software is slowly starting to change over time especially with the introduction of conversational user interfaces, where users can converse with the computer to perform any given task.

We’re witnessing an explosion of applications that no longer have a graphical user interface (GUI). They’ve actually been around for some time, but they’ve only recently slowly started to go mainstream. They are called bots and virtual assistants. They can run on Slack, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, plain SMS, or Amazon Echo. Most of these bots are driven entirely by natural language processing (a sub field of artificial intelligence). Over the next few years chatbots and voice assistants will become an ever growing part of our everyday lives, especially as these bots get better at understanding human language and even emotion.

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