I am not a believer in the AI singularity — the rapture of the nerds — that is, in the possibility of building a brain-in-a-box that will self-improve its own capabilities until it outstrips our ability to keep up. What CS professor and fellow SF author Vernor Vinge described as “the last invention humans will ever need to make”. But I do think we’re going to keep building more and more complicated, systems that are opaque rather than transparent, and that launder our unspoken prejudices and encode them in our social environment. As our widely-deployed neural processors get more powerful, the decisions they take will become harder and harder to question or oppose. And that’s the real threat of AI — not killer robots, but “computer says no” without recourse to appeal.
Monday, December 16th, 2019
Tuesday, December 10th, 2019
After reading this account of a wonderfully surreal text adventure game, you’ll probably want to play AI Dungeon 2:
A PhD student named Nathan trained the neural net on classic dungeon crawling games, and playing it is strangely surreal, repetitive, and mesmerizing, like dreaming about playing one of the games it was trained on.
Friday, September 27th, 2019
Decomputerization doesn’t mean no computers. It means that not all spheres of life should be rendered into data and computed upon. Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.
Tuesday, August 27th, 2019
Voice User Interface Design by Cheryl Platz
Why make a voice interface?
Successful voice interfaces aren’t necessarily solving new problems. They’re used to solve problems that other devices have already solved. Think about kitchen timers. There are lots of ways to set a timer. Your oven might have one. Your phone has one. Why use a $200 device to solve this mundane problem? Same goes for listening to music, news, and weather.
People are using voice interfaces for solving ordinary problems. Why? Context matters. If you’re carrying a toddler, then setting a kitchen timer can be tricky so a voice-activated timer is quite appealing. But why is voice is happening now?
Humans have been developing the art of conversation for thousands of years. It’s one of the first skills we learn. It’s deeply instinctual. Most humans use speach instinctively every day. You can’t necessarily say that about using a keyboard or a mouse.
Voice-based user interfaces are not new. Not just the idea—which we’ve seen in Star Trek—but the actual implementation. Bell Labs had Audrey back in 1952. It recognised ten words—the digits zero through nine. Why did it take so long to get to Alexa?
In the late 70s, DARPA issued a challenge to create a voice-activated system. Carnagie Mellon came up with Harpy (with a thousand word grammar). But none of the solutions could respond in real time. In conversation, we expect a break of no more than 200 or 300 milliseconds.
In the 1980s, computing power couldn’t keep up with voice technology, so progress kind of stopped. Time passed. Things finally started to catch up in the 90s with things like Dragon Naturally Speaking. But that was still about vocabulary, not grammar. By the 2000s, small grammars were starting to show up—starting an X-Box or pausing Netflix. In 2008, Google Voice Search arrived on the iPhone and natural language interaction began to arrive.
What makes natural language interactions so special? It requires minimal training because it uses the conversational muscles we’ve been working for a lifetime. It unlocks the ability to have more forgiving, less robotic conversations with devices. There might be ten different ways to set a timer.
Natural language interactions can also free us from “screen magnetism”—that tendency to stay on a device even when our original task is complete. Voice also enables fast and forgiving searches of huge catalogues without time spent typing or browsing. You can pick a needle straight out of a haystack.
Natural language interactions are excellent for older customers. These interfaces don’t intimidate people without dexterity, vision, or digital experience. Voice input often leads to more inclusive experiences. Many customers with visual or physical disabilities can’t use traditional graphical interfaces. Voice experiences throw open the door of opportunity for some people. However, voice experience can exclude people with speech difficulties.
Making the case for voice interfaces
There’s a misconception that you need to work at Amazon, Google, or Apple to work on a voice interface, or at least that you need to have a big product team. But Cheryl was able to make her first Alexa “skill” in a week. If you’re a web developer, you’re good to go. Your voice “interaction model” is just JSON.
How do you get your product team on board? Find the customers (and situations) you might have excluded with traditional input. Tell the stories of people whose hands are full, or who are vision impaired. You can also point to the adoption rate numbers for smart speakers.
You’ll need to show your scenario in context. Otherwise people will ask, “why can’t we just build an app for this?” Conduct research to demonstrate the appeal of a voice interface. Storyboarding is very useful for visualising the context of use and highlighting existing pain points.
Getting started with voice interfaces
You’ve got to understand how the technology works in order to adapt to how it fails. Here are a few basic concepts.
Utterance. A word, phrase, or sentence spoken by a customer. This is the true form of what the customer provides.
Intent. This is the meaning behind a customer’s request. This is an important distinction because one intent could have thousands of different utterances.
Prompt. The text of a system response that will be provided to a customer. The audio version of a prompt, if needed, is generated separately using text to speech.
Grammar. A finite set of expected utterances. It’s a list. Usually, each entry in a grammar is paired with an intent. Many interfaces start out as being simple grammars before moving on to a machine-learning model later once the concept has been proven.
Here’s the general idea with “artificial intelligence”…
There’s a human with a core intent to do something in the real world, like knowing when the cookies in the oven are done. This is translated into an intent like, “set a 15 minute timer.” That’s the utterance that’s translated into a string. But it hasn’t yet been parsed as language. That string is passed into a natural language understanding system. What comes is a data structure that represents the customers goal e.g. intent=timer; duration=15 minutes. That’s sent to the business logic where a timer is actually step. For a good voice interface, you also want to send back a response e.g. “setting timer for 15 minutes starting now.”
That seems simple enough, right? What’s so hard about designing for voice?
Natural language interfaces are a form of artifical intelligence so it’s not deterministic. There’s a lot of ruling out false positives. Unlike graphical interfaces, voice interfaces are driven by probability.
How do you turn a sound wave into an understandable instruction? It’s a lot like teaching a child. You feed a lot of data into a statistical model. That’s how machine learning works. It’s a probability game. That’s where it gets interesting for design—given a bunch of possible options, we need to use context to zero in on the most correct choice. This is where confidence ratings come in: the system will return the probability that a response is correct. Effectively, the system is telling you how sure or not it is about possible results. If the customer makes a request in an unusual or unexpected way, our system is likely to guess incorrectly. That’s because the system is being given something new.
Designing a conversation is relatively straightforward. But 80% of your voice design time will be spent designing for what happens when things go wrong. In voice recognition, edge cases are front and centre.
Here’s another challenge. Interaction with most voice interfaces is part conversation, part performance. Most interactions are not private.
Humans don’t distinguish digital speech fom human speech. That means these devices are intrinsically social. Our brains our wired to try to extract social information, even form digital speech. See, for example, why it’s such a big question as to what gender a voice interface has.
Delivering a voice interface
Storyboards help depict the context of use. Sample dialogues are your new wireframes. These are little scripts that not only cover the happy path, but also your edge case. Then you reverse engineer from there.
Flow diagrams communicate customer states, but don’t use the actual text in them.
Prompt lists are your final deliverable.
Functional prototypes are really important for voice interfaces. You’ll learn the real way that customers will ask for things.
If you build a working prototype, you’ll be building two things: a natural language interaction model (often a JSON file) and custom business logic (in a programming language).
Eventually voice design will become a core competency, much like mobile, which was once separate.
Ask yourself what tasks your customers complete on your site that feel clunkly. Remember that voice desing is almost never about new scenarious. Start your journey into voice interfaces by tackling old problems in new, more inclusive ways.
May the voice be with you!
Sunday, April 28th, 2019
What would Wiener think of the current human use of human beings? He would be amazed by the power of computers and the internet. He would be happy that the early neural nets in which he played a role have spawned powerful deep-learning systems that exhibit the perceptual ability he demanded of them—although he might not be impressed that one of the most prominent examples of such computerized Gestalt is the ability to recognize photos of kittens on the World Wide Web.
Tuesday, November 13th, 2018
Optimise without a face
I’ve been playing around with the newly-released Squoosh, the spiritual successor to Jake’s SVGOMG. You can drag images into the browser window, and eyeball the changes that any optimisations might make.
On a project that Cassie is working on, it worked really well for optimising some JPEGs. But there were a few images that would require a bit more fine-grained control of the optimisations. Specifically, pictures with human faces in them.
I’ve written about this before. If there’s a human face in image, I open that image in a graphics editing tool like Photoshop, select everything but the face, and add a bit of blur. Because humans are hard-wired to focus on faces, we’ll notice any jaggy artifacts on a face, but we’re far less likely to notice jagginess in background imagery: walls, materials, clothing, etc.
On the face of it (hah!), a browser-based tool like Squoosh wouldn’t be able to optimise for faces, but then Cassie pointed out something really interesting…
- Drag or upload an image into the browser window,
- A facial recognition algorithm finds any faces in the image,
- Those portions of the image remain crisp,
- The rest of the image gets a slight blur,
- Download the optimised image.
Maybe the selecting/blurring part would need canvas? I don’t know.
Anyway, I thought this was a brilliant bit of synthesis from Cassie, and now I’ve got two questions:
- Does this exist yet? And, if not,
- Does anyone want to try building it?
Thursday, July 12th, 2018
A near-future sci-fi short by Hannu Rajaniemi that’s right on the zeitgest money.
The app in her AR glasses showed the car icon crawling along the winding forest road. In a few minutes, it would reach the sharp right turn where the road met the lake. The turn was marked by a road sign she had carefully defaced the previous day, with tiny dabs of white paint. Nearly invisible to a human, they nevertheless fooled image recognition nets into classifying the sign as a tree.
Wednesday, July 11th, 2018
From smart dust and spimes, through to online journaling and social media, to machine learning, big data and digital preservation…
Is the archive where information goes to live forever, or where data goes to die?
Tuesday, July 10th, 2018
This strikes me as a sensible way of thinking about machine learning: it’s like when we got relational databases—suddenly we could do more, quicker, and easier …but it doesn’t require us to treat the technology like it’s magic.
An important parallel here is that though relational databases had economy of scale effects, there were limited network or ‘winner takes all’ effects. The database being used by company A doesn’t get better if company B buys the same database software from the same vendor: Safeway’s database doesn’t get better if Caterpillar buys the same one. Much the same actually applies to machine learning: machine learning is all about data, but data is highly specific to particular applications. More handwriting data will make a handwriting recognizer better, and more gas turbine data will make a system that predicts failures in gas turbines better, but the one doesn’t help with the other. Data isn’t fungible.
Sunday, June 24th, 2018
A really excellent piece from Derek on the history of community management online.
You have to decide what your platform is for and what it’s not for. And, yeah, that means deciding who it’s for and who it’s not for (hint: it’s not bots, nor nazis). That’s not a job you can outsource. The tech won’t do it for you. Not just because it’s your job, but because outsourcing it won’t work. It never does.
Tuesday, June 19th, 2018
A terrific cautionary look at the history of machine learning and artificial intelligence from the new laugh-a-minute book by James.
Saturday, June 16th, 2018
An even-handed assessment of the benefits and dangers of machine learning.
Thursday, March 1st, 2018
Why building inclusive tech takes more than good intentions.
When we run focus groups, we joke that it’s only a matter of seconds before someone mentions Skynet or The Terminator in the context of artificial intelligence. As if we’ll go to sleep one day and wake up the next with robots marching to take over. Few things could be further from the truth. Instead, it’ll be human decisions that we made yesterday, or make today and tomorrow that will shape the future. So let’s make them together, with other people in mind.
Thursday, January 11th, 2018
Training a neural network to do front-end development.
I didn’t understand any of this.
Tuesday, January 9th, 2018
Peter looks into his crystal ball for 2018 and sees computers with eyes, computers with ears, and computers with brains.
Monday, June 12th, 2017
The transcript of Josh’s fantastic talk on machine learning, voice, data, APIs, and all the other tools of algorithmic design:
The design and presentation of data is just as important as the underlying algorithm. Algorithmic interfaces are a huge part of our future, and getting their design right is critical—and very, very hard to do.
Josh put together ten design principles for conceiving, designing, and managing data-driven products. I’ve added them to my collection.
- Favor accuracy over speed
- Allow for ambiguity
- Add human judgment
- Advocate sunshine
- Embrace multiple systems
- Make it easy to contribute (accurate) data
- Root out bias and bad assumptions
- Give people control over their data
- Be loyal to the user
- Take responsibility