How chatbots are exactly like the mouse circa 1970

GUEST:

The first computer mouse was invented in the 1960s and patented in 1970. By the time personal computers became affordable and useful enough to enter the mainstream in the 1980s, an entire generation of adults relied on the mouse to interact with graphical interfaces in intuitive ways: point, scroll, and click.

Today, chatbots are having the same effect on millennials and Gen Z. If we consider utilities like the mouse, touchpads on laptops, and touchscreens on smartphones as means for engaging with machines, then chatbots and conversational UI represent the next wave of innovation in this space. They will be ubiquitous (in some ways, they already are), they will become second nature, and they will form the foundation of our relationships with machines.

The rise of chatbots is significant because it narrows the gap between human intent and machine action. The mouse revolutionized computing by democratizing the way humans interacted with machines. More people could experience technology with a much shorter learning curve because they were increasingly doing so via intuitive visual interfaces, instead of communicating through code.

Following that, touchpads and touchscreens continued to reduce friction, with users needing to learn less and less to create an action. New, simpler commands emerged: “Tap X to exit the app.”

Though we had evolved from mouse to touchscreen, our relationships with machines still required a deliberate, physical intent from the user to create an action. With AI-powered bots, humans don’t necessarily have to have a clear-cut intent to create an action. The machine is smart enough to guess what they’re after, fill in the gaps, or even lead the user in a new direction if it detects they have led themselves astray.

What’s even more intuitive than tapping X? Telling Alexa to “stop.” Even more intuitive than that is Alexa’s ability to detect when Echo should sleep.

Whereas in the past the user would have to translate their thoughts into physical actions — scroll down, click there, tap that — chatbots are narrowing, and will soon remove, the translation step. With voice technology, the touch aspect can be eliminated, with users prompting actions and activities without ever touching a keyboard.

What does this ultimately mean? The ways in which millennials and subsequent generations of people interact with machines will be increasingly “human.” We’ll talk to them, direct them, and engage with them just as we would our friends, spouses, and colleagues. With “Alexa, order me a Domino’s pizza,” it’s already happening.

Machines acting as humans might sound like the plot of a science fiction movie, but the trend is having (and will continue to have) major ramifications for entrepreneurs interested in using machine learning to improve the lives of humans. The long-term benefit for sectors like education, training (my company, Butterfly, falls here), and even wellness will be that machines will help us become smarter, more informed, and more healthy through personalized interactions grounded in live data gathered from our own lives.

Farther off, it’s not unrealistic to imagine a world in which machines can take action as soon as the thoughts cross our mind — in fact, Elon Musk is already working on it — but until then, we should embrace the humanlike capacities of machines that have been brought on by the bot revolution.

David Mendlewicz is cofounder of Butterfly, an employee intelligence and leadership coaching app.

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