Over the last decade, users of technology have experienced the benefits of an ever-expanding developer toolkit dedicated to enhancing the interfaces that we use to communicate with our devices and applications. Over the last decade, the typical user interface (UI) has moved well beyond the constraints of the keyboard and mouse or trackpad toward an increasing reliance on touch and voice. In the 2020s, I would like to re-frame an evolving idea: the new frontiers of UI will increasingly leverage modes of artificial intelligence—specifically conversations—to power interactions between human and machine.
Even with a great deal of AI already permeating the UIs that are a part of our devices (e.g. facial recognition, predictive text, and autocorrect on your smartphone), productive interactions with our technology ‘ecosystem’ are still primarily based on our ability to type or touch. This next wave of innovation in UI will harness the power of AI to allow for our conversations to be the MOST useful way to engage with technology.
Let’s consider the example of the much-maligned chatbot. Full disclosure, this is one of the businesses that I’m involved in at Noodle Factory with my co-founder Yvonne Soh. Chat or chatbots are an unfortunate shorthand that we feel forced to use because it is something everyone is familiar with. However, what we are really developing is conversational AI to power a new type of user interface into capabilities and information. As computing becomes ever more ubiquitous, less depended on a set of devices, and grounded in our personal connectedness to the Internet, the conversation will become the predominant way that we engage with our personal technology ecosystem (PTE).
Ronald Ashri has recently written about AI-powered workplaces becoming a new form of competitive advantage*. He talks about a scenario, in the not too distant future, where ‘the interface’ between humans and their PTE simply disappears. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, we become like a fish in water—the environment we operate in becomes invisible unless we consciously choose to raise our awareness that ‘the water’ exists. When everything is an intelligent, connected device, the only practical way to engage in this operating environment is through conversation.
The type of contextual approach that we are attempting in our own efforts with our team at Noodle Factory is a difficult one. We are trying to re-imagine our relationship with data and information as one that is based on a continuing, seamless engagement—this could be a ‘chat’—between the individual and their assistant using natural language. The ‘channel’ that individuals use to conduct and maintain these chats is irrelevant. The key is connectedness and integration across as many facets of an individual’s PTE as is physically and technologically possible.
Why should we conform to the limitations of devices, operating systems, software design, and the UIs of old? As humans, we are wired to share and receive information through conversation. The time is now ripe for conversation to become the new UI.
Dr Jim Wagstaff lives in Singapore and is the co-founder of Noodle Factory, an AI-powered teaching and learning platform. Jim is also the co-founder of Jam Factory and a founding board member of Up 2 Speed–companies that focus on corporate training. Until 2010, Jim was Vice-President and General Manager of Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s data storage business in the APJ region. Jim earned both his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Liverpool (UK). His ongoing research focuses on how organisations harness the power of digital capabilities to better serve customers, students, and users.