Since the dawn of computer technology, the ways in which we’ve interacted with machines have been in constant flux. The defining interface of the 2010s was surely the mobile display, enabled by touchscreen technology.
Now, in the 2020s, we’re seeing the arrival of a slew of new interfaces — VR, AR, wearables, etc — but there’s one, in particular, that’s positioned to fundamentally change our relationship with machines: the conversational interface.
In truth, it’s hard to say that conversational interfaces will “arrive” at all. They’ve always been around. We’ve been using conversational formats to engage with all sorts of services for decades. Fast-food drive-thrus and customer service lines are both examples of long-standing conversational user interfaces (CUIs), although they’re very low-tech implementations, so they’re not commonly recognized as such.
And thus, the slow creep of CUIs into relevancy has been undetected by most. Among those who have recognized the potential are the tech giants — Google, Facebook, and Amazon have all been investing heavily into conversational technology — and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of us realize that conversational interfaces will change the world.
The key factor is, of course, conversational AI, which allows businesses to scale conversational services in ways that were previously impossible, breaking free from a reliance on humans labor. Sure, there have been several false-starts (we all remember the cringey chatbot hype bubble from a few years back), but the space is starting to stabilize.
Natural Language Processing is improving rapidly thanks to the recent development of transformer models (anyone who’s witnessed the craziness of GPT-3 can testify to that). And just as importantly, consumer behavior is trending towards conversational interfaces like WhatsApp, Messenger, Slack, and Signal. In fact, in 2015, for the first time in history, users spent more time on messaging apps than on social networks.
When considering the possibilities of this future, it’s important to remember why conversational services can be so powerful: they leverage the power of language. With over 100,000 words in the English language, there’s basically an infinite number of ideas to be expressed. In contrast, communicating with clicks on a graphical display feels like sending smoke signals.
We’ve all gotten used to this “smoke signal” reality, but what if that changed? What if we could speak to our favorite tools and services like they were a casual friend? Imagine the possibilities of collaboration when you could switch from working on your email inbox to working with it? “Hey Gmail, let me know if anyone sends me an email about the upcoming event, otherwise snooze the rest for now.”
It gets really exciting when you start to consider the emergence of entirely new types of services only made possible by the scalability of conversational AI. The wide range of personalized services that were previously exclusive to the ultra-wealthy will soon be made available to the rest of us. Everyone can have their own personal assistant, their own personal shopper, their own personal shopper. Remember, these services are niche today not because they’re not useful, but because they haven’t been scalable.
CUIs are not just more powerful, they’re more accessible. Historically, we’ve been tasked with learning to understand machines, but in the future, it’s the machines who will learn to understand us. In the future, if you can speak it, you can do it. This will create an explosion of possibility as more people than ever learn to harness technology to improve their lives.
Like all technological advances, this reality will feel distant until one day it’s everywhere. Businesses who don’t recognize this potential will be missing out. A day will come when offering a conversational interface to your service will be table stakes, much like how a mobile interface is today (can you imagine a company today without a mobile-friendly website?). Some services will even go as far to be conversational-first, emphasizing a conversational interface as the primary user experience ( Lemonade is most notable here).
In closing, conversational interfaces are on the precipice of eruption into the mainstream. Its arrival will fundamentally reframe our relationship with technology. By combining raw power with ground-breaking accessibility, conversational interfaces will bring about a world of new possibilities. And unlike other technological shifts of the past, this time will be a bit different. This time, the forward lurch of technological progress will actually bring the machines closer to us, making our technology feel a lot more human.