A Lofty Goal

The blogosphere is all atwitter with Powerset’s public launch last night. Over at Techcrunch, Michael Arrington refers to their approach as a lofty goal.

But I’d like us to dream bigger. In the science fiction stories that inspired me to study computer and information science, the human-computer interface is not just natural language input. It’s dialogue. The authors do not treat machine understanding of unambiguous requests as a wonder, but instead take it for granted as an artifact of technical progress. Indeed, the human-computer interface only becomes relevant to the plot when communication breaks down (aka “that does not compute”).

Ever since I hacked a BASIC version of ELIZA on a Commodore 64, I’ve felt the visceral appeal of natural language input as an interface. Conversely, the progress of speech synthesis attests to our desire to humanize the machine’s output. It is as if we want to reduce the Turing Test to a look-and-feel.

But the essence of dialogue lies beneath the surface. The conversations we have with machines are driven by our information needs, and should be optimized to that end. Even we human drop natural language among ourselves when circumstances call for more efficient communication. Consider an example as mundane as Starbucks baristas eliciting and delegating a latte order.

In short, let’s remember that we want to talk with our computers, not just at them. Today’s natural language input may be a step towards that end, or it may be just a detour.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

3 replies on “A Lofty Goal”

Daniel, I couldn’t agree more. My experience with Powerset was similar to yours – while the user experience was fun and pleasing, I didn’t find anything I wouldn’t have found using more traditional search (i.e. Google). While what Powerset has done is technically impressive and fun to use, I don’t think it will have staying power, because it attacks the wrong problem. The future of search is not “a better search box and 10 results”. General purpose search is done. Even assuming one can deliver “better search results” (arguable in the case of Powersearch), how will it win out over the reach and brand power of Google? Answer: it won’t. I think the future of search is task-centric information access that supports both findability and exploration in the context of specific objectives – say, finding a new book to read, deciding what neighborhood to move to, getting your next job, deciding where to eat, etc. The shortcoming of major search engines is that, while they can happily parse your query and give you some web pages to read, they have no idea what you are trying to accomplish – and therefore cannot adapt their experience to support your task.


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