smart interface

Ideas are sometimes Slippery and Hard to Grasp

Posted on

I started this blog the goal of it being an “idea exchange,” as well a way to pass along lessons learned to help others. One of the things that has surprised me is how different the comments and likes are for each post. Feedback from the last post was even more diverse and surprising than usual. It ranged from comments about “Siri vs Google,” to feedback about Sci-Fi books and movies, to Artificial Intelligence.

I asked a few friends for feedback and received something very insightful (Thanks Jim). He stated that he found the blog interesting, but wasn’t sure what the objective was. He went on to identify several possible goals for the last post. Strangely enough, his comments mirrored the type of feedback that I received. That pointed out an area for improvement to me, and I appreciated that.

This also got me thinking about a white paper written 12-13 years ago by someone I used to work with. It was about how Bluetooth was going to be the “next big thing.” He had read an IEEE paper or something and saw potential for this new technology. His paper provided the example of your toaster and coffee maker communicating so that your breakfast would be ready when you walk into the kitchen in the morning.

At that time I had a couple of thoughts. First, who cared about something that only had a 20-30 foot range when WiFi was becoming popular and had much greater range? In addition, a couple of years earlier I had a tour of the Microsoft “House of the Future,” in which everything was automated and key components communicated with each other. But everything in the house was all hardwired or used WiFi – not Bluetooth. So, it was easy to dismiss his assertion because it seemed too abstract.

Looking back now I view that white paper as having insight (if it were visionary he would have come out with the first Bluetooth speakers, or car interface, or even phone earpiece and gotten rich), but it failed to present use cases that were easy Idea 2enough to understand yet different enough from what was available at the time to demonstrate the real value of the idea. His expression of idea was not tangible enough and therefore too slippery to be easily grasped.

I’m a huge believer that good ideas sometimes originate where you least expect them. Often those ideas are incremental in nature – seemingly simple and sometimes borderline obvious, but building on some other idea or concept. An idea does not need to be unique in order to be important or valuable, but it does need to be presented in a way that is easy to understand and tangible. That is just good communication.

One of the things I miss most from when my consulting company was active was the interaction between a couple of key people (Jason and Peter) and myself. Those guys were very good at taking an idea and helping build it out. This worked well because we had some common expertise and experiences, but we also had skills and perspectives that were more complementary in nature. That diversity increased the depth and breadth to our efforts to develop and extend those ideas.

Our discussions were creative and highly collaborative, and also a lot of fun. Each of us improved from them, and the outcome us usually something viable from a commercial perspective. As a growing and profitable small business you need to constantly innovate to differentiate yourself from your competition. Our discussions were driven as much by necessity as they were by intellectual curiosity.

So, back to the last post. I view various technologies as building blocks. Some are foundational and others are complementary. To me, the key is not viewing those various technologies as competing with each other. Instead, I look for the value in integrating them with each other. It is not always possible and does not always lead to something better, but occasionally it does. With regard to voice technology, I do believe that we will see more, better and smarter applications of it.

While today’s smart phones would not pass the Turing Test or proposed alternatives, they are an improvement over more simplistic voice translation tools available just a few years ago. Advancement requires the tool to understand context in order to make inferences. This brings you closer to machine learning, and big data (when done right) increases that potential. Ultimately, this all leads to Artificial Intelligence (at least in my mind). It’s a big leap from a simple voice translation tool to AI, but when viewed as building blocks it is not such a stretch.

Now think about creating an interface (API) that allows one smart device to communicate with another in something akin to the collaborative efforts described above with my old team. It’s not simply having a front-end device exchanging keywords or queries with a back-end device. Instead, it is two or more devices and/or systems having a “discussion” about what is being requested, looking at what each component “knows,” asking clarifying questions and making suggestions, and then finally taking that multi-dimensional understanding to determine what is really needed.

So, possibly not true AI, but a giant leap forward from what we have today. That would help turn science fiction of the past into science fact in the near future. The better the understanding and inferences by the smart system, the better the results. I also believe that the unintended consequences of these new smart systems it that are they become more human like in their approach the more likely they will be to make errors. But, hopefully they will be able to back test recommendations to help minimize errors and be intelligent enough to monitor results and make suggestions about corrective actions when they determine that the recommendation was not optimal. And even more importantly, there won’t be an ego creating a distortion filter on the results.

A lot of the building blocks required to create these new systems are available today. But, it takes both vision and insight to see that potential, translate ideas from slippery and abstract to tangible and purposeful, and then start building something really cool. As that happens we will see a paradigm shift in how we interact with computers and how they interact with us. That will lead us to the systematic integration that I wrote about in a big data / nanotechnology post.

So, what is the objective of this post? To get people thinking about things in a different way, to foster collaboration and partnerships between businesses and educational institutions to push the limits of technology, and to foster discussion about what others believe the future of computing and smart devices will look like. I’m confident that I will see these types of systems in my lifetime, and see the possibility of a lot of this occurring within the next decade.

What are your thoughts?

The Future of Smart Interfaces

Posted on Updated on

Recently I was helping one of my children research a topic for a school paper. She was doing well, but the results she was getting were overly broad. So, I taught her some “Google-Fu,” explaining how you can structure queries in ways that yield better results. She commented that the searches should be smarter than that, and I explained that sometimes the problem is that search engines look at your past searches and customize results as an attempt to appear smarter. Unfortunately, those results can be skewed and potentially lead someone in the wrong direction. It was a good reminder that getting the best results from search engines often requires a bit of skill and query planning.

Then the other day I saw this commercial from Motel 6 (“Gas Station Trouble”) where a man has problems getting good results from his smart phone. That reminded me of seeing someone speak to their phone, getting frustrated by the responses received. His questions went something like this: “Siri, I want to take my wife to dinner tonight, someplace that is not too far away, and not too late. And she likes to have a view while eating so please look for something with a nice view. Oh, and we don’t want Italian food because we just had that last night.” Just as amazing as the question being asked was watching him ask it over and over again in the exact same way, each time becoming even more frustrated. I asked myself, “Are smart phones making us dumber?” Instead of contemplating that question I began to think about what future smart interfaces would or could be like. 

I grew up watching Sci-Fi computer interfaces like “Computer” on Star Trek (1966), “HAL” on 2001 : A Space Odyssey (1968), “KITT” from Knight Rider (1982), and “Samantha” from Her (2013). These interfaces had a few things in common: They responded to verbal commands; They were interactive – not just providing answers, but also asking qualifying questions and allowing for interrupts to drill-down or enhance the search (e.g., with pictures or questions that resembled verbal Venn diagrams); They often provided suggestions for alternate queries based on intuition. Despite having 50 years of science fiction examples we are still a long way off from realizing that goal. Like many new technologies, they were originally envisioned by science fiction writers long before they appeared in science.

There seems to be a spectrum of common beliefs about modern interfaces. On one end there are products that make visualization easy, facilitating understanding, refinement and drill-down of data sets. Tableau is a great example of this type of easy to use interface. At the other end of the spectrum the emphasis is on back-end systems – robust computer systems that digest huge volumes of data and return the results to complex queries within seconds. The Actian Analytics Platform is a great example of a powerful analytics platform. In reality, you really need both if you want to maximize the full potential of either. Digitized image of a man's face overlaying the globe

But, there is so much more to be done. I predict that within the next 3 – 5 years we will see business and consumer examples that are closer to the verbal interfaces from those familiar Sci-Fi shows (albeit with limited capabilities and no flashing lights). Within the next 10 years I believe we will have computer interfaces that intuit our needs and facilitate generating the correct answers quickly and easily. While this is unlikely to be at the level of “The world’s first intelligent Operating System” envisioned in the movie “Her,” and probably won’t even be able to read lips like “HAL,” it should be much more like HAL and KITT than like Siri (from Apple) or Cortana (from Microsoft). Siri was groundbreaking consumer technology when it was introduced. Cortana seems to have taken a small leap ahead. While I have not mentioned Google Now, it is somewhat of a latecomer to this consumer smart interface party, and in my opinion is behind both Siri and Cortana.

So, what will this future smart interface do? It will need to be very powerful, harnessing a natural language interface on the front-end with an extremely flexible and robust analytics interface on the back-end. The language interface will need to take a standard question (in multiple languages and dialects) – just as if you were asking a person, deconstruct it using Natural Language Processing (NLP), and develop the proper query based on the available data. That is important but only gets you so far.

Data will come from many sources – things that we consider today with relational, object, and graph databases. There will be structured and unstructured data that must be joined and filtered quickly and accurately. In addition, context will be more important than ever. Pictures and videos could be scanned for facial recognition, location (via geotagging), and in the case of videos analyze speech. Relationships will be identified and inferred based on a variety of sources, using both data and metadata. Sensors will collect data from almost everything we do and (someday) wear, which will provide both content and context. The use of Stylometry will identify outside content likely related to the people involved in the query and provide further context about interests, activities, and even biases. This is how future interfaces will truly understand (not just interpret), intuit (so it can determine what you really want to know), and then present results that may be far more accurate than we are used to today. Because the interface is interactive in nature it will provide the ability to organize and analyze subsets of data quickly and easily.

So, where do I think that this technology will originate? I believe that it will be adapted from video game technology. Video games have consistently pushed the envelope over the years, helping drive the need for higher bandwidth I/O capabilities in devices and networks, better and faster graphics capabilities, and larger and faster storage (which ultimately led to flash memory and even Hadoop). Animation has become very lifelike and games are becoming more responsive to audio commands. It is not a stretch of the imagination to believe that this is where the next generation of smart interfaces will be found (instead of from the evolution of current smart interfaces).

Someday it may no longer be possible to “tweak” results through the use or omission of keywords, quotation marks, and flags. Additionally, it may no longer be necessary to understand special query languages (SQL, NoSQL, SPARQL, etc.) and syntax. We won’t have to worry as much about incorrect joins, spurious correlations and biased result sets. Instead, we will be given the answers we need – even if we don’t realize that this was what we needed in the first place. At that point computer systems may appear nearly omniscient.

When this happens parents will no longer need to teach their children “Google-Fu.” Those are going be interesting times indeed.