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.