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Machine Talk

Last month Amazon purchased Whole Foods for $13.7 billion. This is incredible news for several reasons!

 First, it shows the phenomenal success of young companies that emerged from the information technology revolution a few decades ago. Think about what Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple achieved in the past 20 years. Their success is both amazing and inspiring!

 Second is the story behind this purchase. Jeff Bezos just wanted to buy some fruits at Whole Foods, but Alexa didn’t understand it correctly…



Of course, this is a joke. But a powerful one!

Humor says a lot about the culture of its time. And this tells us an interesting story about where today’s technology is going. We are entering an era where we talk to our devices. This brings the biggest change yet to the integration of technology and our lives.

Communication and language are key to the evolution and development of species. And particularly for us humans.

About 300,000 years ago, multiple species populated the planet. Among them were several types of apes and humans such as the Homo Heidelbergensis, Homo Neanderthals, and Homo Sapiens.

Fast forward 30,000 years ago, and our species, Homo Sapiens, is the only one to survive and conquer the land. The others, while physically stronger, became extinct. Our ancestors outnumbered, outpowered and outlived them all. How did that happen despite our relatively frail physical abilities?

According to many researchers like Yuval Noam Harari, it was communication and language. In his book, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, Harari explains that the development of language in Homo Sapiens about 70,000 years ago is what helped us evolve and survive.

Language brought with it the ability to express ideas and concepts, allowing groups to form, communicate, and plan. Together, as a community, the frail Homo Sapiens could overcome any evolutionary challenge successfully. Whereas other species that lacked language skills could not. That was the start of the cognitive era! Physical strength was no longer the key to survival. Communication became the dominant factor and remains so today. Aristotle had a point when he said that humans are social animals.    

Since the days of the industrial revolution, we have designed, manufactured and engineered many different complex machines and devices. Today, we interact with dozens of devices as part of our daily routine.  

Interacting with our devices requires some initial effort and adaptation. We must learn how to communicate with them. Even if it’s easy, it’s not natural. Pressing buttons, launching apps, typing, reading or even driving a car all require some sort of training.

The car is a perfect example. To begin driving, you first must learn how. It involves igniting the motor, shifting the gears, steering the wheel, activating the brakes and so on… that’s the language your car understands. And how does it respond to you when you do these things? When you step on the gas, the car moves forward. When you turn the wheel, the car turns in the same direction, and when you press on the brakes, the car stops. 

Wouldn’t it be nice to just get in and tell your car “Hi, I want to go the park today. Please take a scenic road.”? Talking is way more natural.

Language is such a powerful tool that is rooted in our DNA. It would seem logical to use it as the default way to interact with the things in our lives, including machines. Especially since there are so many devices that we interact with every day. We can’t adapt to them all and so we need to use our most natural means of communication, language.

Believe it or not, this may be happening. Many universities and companies worldwide are working on natural language interaction with machines. New fields of research emerged such as Human Machine Interaction (HMI) and Human Computer Interaction (HCI) to design natural interfaces. We already use many of them.

-We use Siri and Google assistant to talk to our phones

-Cortana from Microsoft (which comes by default with Windows 10) allows us to talk to our PC’s.

-Alexa from Amazon gives us access to the entire Amazon catalog and control devices around the house.

- In a Tesla car, you can talk and give directions on where to go.

There are numerous examples and we’re making tremendous progress. But we still have many challenges to overcome. Engineers and researchers are needed to advance this field.  And we may also need to learn to interact with machines as we do with humans.

Based on how language transformed the evolution of our species, what will talking to machines do for our progression and the progression of the devices we communicate with? This raises fascinating questions!

One thing for sure is that we need to handle these challenges with care. We must be educated about these issues so that we can use this knowledge for good, not bad. Let’s make sure to move forward towards the betterment of the world!


Bonus notes for educators.

As always, the educator’s role is crucial. You are training the next generation of consumers and developers of tomorrow’s world. Teaching the right skills to our kids will shape the future of our society. And it will make the difference between positive and negative advancement.

Here’s a way to start. If you are among the lucky ones who own a NAO robot, you can work on creating programs and behaviors for the robot to converse with you. You need to use the dialog box. You can follow the guide which takes you step by step to your first natural interaction design!

If you don’t have a robot, you can start with downloading the software for a free trial and mimic discussions with the dialog box and text edit input.

Welcome to the field of HRI. We hope you will design amazing ways to interact with robots and devices!

  • Jul 14, 2017 3:29:22 PM

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