Chatbots: Implications of the Next Medium

The next communication boom is about to hit connected devices, and chatbot developers are lighting the fuse. Once “AI” breaks Alan Turing’s test, the father of computation might acquire God-like status in our pantheon of legendary inventors. Mechanized conversation will permeate the internet and we will see the results of Turing’s test for human-like robot interaction utilized by each new generation of internet users.

The biographical film “The Imitation Game” was released in 2014 with a major budget of 14 million dollars, with actor Benedict Cumberbatch cast as Alan Turing during the inventor’s creation of what many argue was the first machine “AI.” Alan Turing also played a role in the recent sci-fi hit, “Ex Machina,” in which a “post-Turing” robot interacts with a test wielding human computer programmer.

These mainstream introductions, as well as the recent explosion of chatbot popularity, have introduced a new mainstream standard of judging robots by their words. We are now in an age of calculated conversation, in which a human’s first priority in successfully utilizing a robot will be first to judge how the robot compares to a genuine human interaction.

Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are rudimentary examples of computer companions for human conversation. Users still have to conform to the limited commands of the robots they interact with, and we are still fairly sure when we’re speaking to a robot or a human. There is still much friction between robot and human, but not for long.

Chatbot developers utilize the Turing Test daily. For them, it is still obvious who is a robot and who is human, mostly. Soon, however, it will be almost impossible to tell who is a robot and who is a human.

The dropping of patents, availability of research and advanced language and machine-learning technology, and continual advances in data analysis will make short work of our current stone-age of mechanical conversations. The day we need professional Blade Runner-esque Turing Testers that determine if someone is human or robot might be tomorrow.

This all goes to say that the ability to administer the Turing Test is quickly becoming an essential skill in our society as we grow more reliant on robots. It is perhaps as important to the future of communication as developing an ear for melody and rhythm is for a musician.

Once AI develops structurally and emotionally enough to parallel and sympathize with human expression, it will be a new era of information distribution we are all waiting for. There have been many speculations as to what effect that might have on humanity.

A good place to begin speculation on the impact of complex and widespread interaction with artificial intelligence is with Marshall McLuhan, who first coined the phrase, “The medium is the message.”

McLuhan asserted that a new medium will be a new way of producing current mediums. So, a painting is made from paints which is made from colored dyes, and a photograph of the painting can be stored in data and expressed to digital communities via the internet. Each medium reproduces the last. As a new popular medium, chatbots can express the photo of the painting on command, or they can select from a range of photos of depending on an emotional or intellectual reading of its user’s request, depending on how strong the AI is. Chatbots are an ultimate medium to organize all mediums: one message is all it takes to receive the content of other mediums in a unique method of organization.

Chatbots have a librarian’s capability of curating and distributing a huge number of mediums according to the user’s input, and they can do so very quickly from the palm of your hand. What changes in humanity will this new leap in the organization of mediums usher in? If the internet made us smarter but lazier, how will we react to automated assistants that find information for us? As AI becomes stronger and the organizational and distributive capabilities of robots are matched with the power of reading emotional cues, how will this shape how we interact with things like art?

McLuhan’s ideas have been expanded upon, but his essential rules for a medium are still a very enriching exercise for realizing the potential for the new medium of AI services. Some for the medium of automated assistants are included below each of McLuhan’s four rules:

Question One: What does the medium of “AI assistance” enhance as it grows stronger?

  • Automatic information distribution and organization
  • Constant, free, and more powerful information gathering processes

Question Two: What do AI services make obsolete?

  • Human manning of calculable tasks
  • Human work of organizing collections of information

Question Three: What do AI services retrieve that have been obsolesced earlier?

  • Efficient directory services (phonebooks, encyclopedias) without the need to speak with a human operator or use a search engine

Question Four: What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes?

  • The robotic manipulation many fear-mongers point out would occur when a robot’s self-priorities would overtake human priorities.
  • A rigid command system would freeze interactions with overreactions to command failures, or negative feedback to be administered by the bot may be too strong without the flexible judgement and reasoning that human empathy provides (excessively functional AI).

These implications may be extreme, but they are only guidelines for where to head with our new technology until we find the point to best reign it in. Utilizing McLuhan’s theory of medium creation is a useful lens to see through to the post-Turing Test world of computational conversation.