On stage at its annual Build conference keynote, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella painted a picture of our lives being made easier with bots, intelligent agents that live within apps and services. But, would that life be much better, or less connected than it already is – or both?
Nadella and team's vision for conversational computing comes just a week after their first public experiment in the field, Tay, came crashing down in a spectacular display of human depravity. Not exactly the best argument for a world run by bots.
The newly-appointed executive addressed the Twitter chat bot experiment head on during the March 30 Build 2016 keynote with a three-fold plan for bots that he believes are the new apps.
To Nadella, so long as bots and the digital assistants that use them are built with the intention to augment human ability and experience, with trustworthiness (privacy, transparency, security) and with inclusion and respectfulness in mind, we'll be OK.
Or, at the very least, we'll avoid another Tay scenario.
And, on paper, that generally checks out. Of course, the bots that Microsoft envisions aren't necessarily accessible by the masses all at once, but individuals through specific communication programs or through assistants, like Cortana.
Still, Tay was demonstrative of the sheer power that such intelligent, semi-autonomous software can possess. But I'm worried about another facet of these bots' power.
Do we need another crutch to connect?
That's my simple question to everyone: are the lay people of the world ready for such power, just as we're learning empathy on the internet? But, I'll follow that up with another one.
What will that power do to a society that's more connected than ever yet whose people struggle to meaningfully connect with one another more than ever?
Take Microsoft's demonstration of Cortana using bots to facilitate uniting with an old friend in Dublin, Ireland on an upcoming trip. Looking at it one way: Cortana and its squad of bots just helped someone connect with her old friend.
But, try and look at it this way: wouldn't that person have remembered that old friend without Cortana's help? Americans don't visit Ireland every day, after all. Or, would she not have, for the effects of "connected" tech have already created a crutch for her to lean on to facilitate human interaction?
I like to call this "The Facebook Effect." How many of your friends and family members' birthdays do you actually remember now that Facebook reminds you? (I won't even bother counting myself.)
What happens when we apply similar use cases to far more powerful pieces of technology? My guess is that it won't be long before we rely on bots to remind us to connect with one another much less order a pizza.
At that point, I don't know how much bots are helping so much as hindering our ability to meaningfully or earnestly connect with one another. In the above Dublin scenario, the woman didn't even reach out to her friend on her own – Cortana did it for her.
Bots for tedium, brains for relationships
Now, don't mistake: I couldn't be more excited for for bots to intelligently update my calendar and remind me that I'm on deadline for that laptop review. But, I'd rather handle communicating with other humans on my own, thanks.
Technology by its very definition makes life easier, we'd be nothing without it, but just how much do we want to lean on technology to foster human relationships?
As we enter this new phase of automation, we could do with asking ourselves that question more often.
- Windows 10 is about to get quite interesting
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