The Rise of the Bots

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Also published on Medium

Earlier this year there was a flurry of of talk in the non-tech press, on the back of Facebook launching their bot platform. Most had an air of uncertainty over what bots actually were, but certainty, none the less, that if Zuck was excited about them, then they must be the next big thing, and something which that particular journalist didn’t want to be behind the curve on.

But the rise of the bots has been a while coming. It’s been running just under the radar for a few years now, from productivity bots on Slack to forum moderation bots on Reddit. There’s a sense, however, that it took a huge mainstream company throwing their weight behind it to bring the idea to the masses.

And then, a matter of weeks later, we already have BBC reports of porn bots spamming Islamic State twitter accounts, and, excellently, a bot specifically written to troll confused Donald Trump supporters (Are there any other kind?). There are services anyone can sign up for, such as Wit and Beep Boop which allow you to construct your own bots. So are the bots really about to take over?

Facebook weren’t the first of course. Siri has been around for five years now and the Amazon Echo, which sits in your living room listening constantly so you can change channels on your TV or buy crap from Amazon with just the power of your voice, has been around since late 2014.
However, there’s no doubt when interacting with these examples that the intelligence is anything other than artificial. They pick key words from what you say to them, then serve up stock responses. They’re basically toys. Cute to play with, but with no real utility.

Google’s artificial intelligence is way ahead of everyone else (outside of academia and the military) in this regard. While Siri was responding to your questions with snarky stock answers, obviously scripted by a human, Google Now was looking at your current location, comparing it to the location of that appointment in your Google Calendar an hour from now, checking traffic data on the route between and finally pushing a pop-up notification to your phone to tell you when need to leave to get there on time. All without you having to actually do anything. It all just happens!

There’s been a few neat tricks like this which Google Now has been able to do for a while, but this year, they’re aiming to bring everything together to deliver a complete personal assistant. At Google I/O 2016, their developer conference, they announced they were bringing their AI to the fore, under the name Google Assistant, and integrating it into all their products. They unveiled Google Home — their answer to Amazon’s Echo, and a new messenger client which will join in your conversations when you need it to help out— Allo.


Of course, we’ve been occasionally seeing tantalising glimpses into Googles AI research for years now. When you open Google Photos and tell it to show you pictures of dogs, for example, or pictures of red cars, it does a pretty good job of serving up the exact photos you have taken featuring that content. When they unveiled the technology behind this last summer — Deep Dream, the internet flipped.

Deep Dream images are hallucinatory visualisations of the world which everyone who saw them seemed to react to on a primal level. There’s clearly some research to be done there over how our brains construct pictures of the world, and how close this is to how Deep Dreams intelligence is understanding images.

The problem with Google harvesting as much of our personal data as it can get its hands on, to feed into their personal assistant, is that some people already think Google knows too much about them. As Jeff Jarvis put it, Google thinks it’s Snuffleupagus but everyone else thinks it’s a T-Rex. But the simple cold fact is that, in order for bots to be in any way useful, they have to know a lot about us.

Apples stance on user privacy (taken, one suspects as an attack on Google’s business model rather than any moral high ground) is the very thing which will hinder Siri from ever being smart enough to do anything other than tell you the weather or do basic web searches for you. If Apple wants to bring any sort of intelligence to Siri, they’re going to have to mine your data too. And they will, eventually. It’s the only way this stuff works.

Siri always had the personality but not much intelligence. Google Now had the intelligence and the utility, but felt like what it was, an interaction with an emotionless robot. To address this, they’ve put together a team, including former Pixar story teller Emma Coats, to create a personality, and even a back story, for their assistant.

This makes sense. Google have worked with other Pixar Alumnae to explore the new forms of storytelling that 360° video allows, as demonstrated in the recently released short film Pearl.

Pixar are famous for being the film studio to make grown men cry. It’s a cold-hearted person that doesn’t get moist-eyed at the end of Toy Story 3, or the devastating first 11 minutes of Up. Pixar breathe real emotion and complex personalities to their films, which translates into a warmth and humanity that allows us to relate to their characters, and invest in the story. Google’s betting that we will feel such an emotional bond to our virtual personal assistant.
This was the topic Spike Lee explored at length in his 2013 film Her. Even then, it seemed like the technology on show was still a decade or two away. At some point in the interim, it’s crept up on us and now seems to be tantalisingly close.

It does seem inevitable we’re going to get emotionally attached to our tech, even if it’s more like a master/pet relationship than a human one. When Tesla pushed out a software update to their cars last year which enabled self driving mode, anecdotes appeared (Seemingly untrue, as it happens) that if they were unsure what to do, they would just take the safest option, pull into the side of the road and stop. If the image of a car getting confused, panicking, and pulling into the side of the road to get its head together gave you even the slightest twinge of an ‘aww poor wee thing’ reaction, then it’s only a matter of time before you’re going to feel the same way about your phone.

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