on technologies and interfaces

this is a working draft.

when google publicised duplex in 2018, most people were terribly impressed by how natural the cg-voice sounded. there has been some superficial controversy1, of-course, but it is no match for the sheer power with which google (and big-tech) continue to massage such technologies into our lives.

while the work done by big-tech in replicating human-ness is impressive, impressive does not always mean appropriate or timely or socio-culturally useful. (i can be overly-dramatic and allude to the sheer impressiveness of the nuclear bomb ; let me not digress, however.)

conversational technologies are still in their infancy: engines still take several seconds to understand words and speak back to us, agents struggle with context-switches and cultural references, and software are still quite ignorant of situated real-world connections. the development of their interfaces is largely engineer-led ; designers and their ilk are mostly asked to make the interfaces appear more natural and than they actually are2.

things continue to evolve, though: we are gradually beginning to engineer (and design) experiences that are less discrete than “set an alarm for 8 am tomorrow” or “will it rain today?” ; conversations with machines can now last several turns (or several days3), thread together several touch-points and mediate complex experiences4 ; and conversational technologies grow a lot more sophisticated, immersive and multi-modal with every passing month.

conversational technologies that power duplex are here to stay — and they should! — they’re immensely powerful, and promise us gifts of mind-numbing convenience. but if conversational interfaces can appear incredibly natural with minimal design-input, what would that leave design with?

i think it helps if we look at the previous paragraph and recognise that a technology is not the same as an interface. a technology may manifest through any number of interfaces5 ; and a designer should be allowed more control over how human-like, if at all, an interface is.

people tend to be suspicious of unknown things, and may reflexively flinch away from outstanding products without trying them ; that is why engineers like to clothe their technologies in human-like interfaces ; cloaking newness under a garb of familiarity is an obvious way to overcome this problem, and is usually quite easy to do.

the tech-world’s ‘easy’ approaches to socially-dispersed products, however, are often morally questionable: after-all, we live in an age where “social” technologies have promoted loneliness, depression, misinformation, ignorance and polarisation on an impressively global scale.

humans don’t just interact : we relate. a human’s appearance and behaviour encodes her situatedness, her empathy, her understanding of complex existential notions, her ability to respond humanely to non-historical patterns, and her unquestionable potential to form relationships. a machine lacks this ability ; so why must a human–machine interaction ape a human–human relationship?

first-impressions make up a very small fraction of our total experience with a technology, but disproportionately influence taint its future development. human-likeness sets inaccurate expectations in the mind of the audience ; it can deflect or amplify a technology’s psychological, socio-cultural and ecological impact ; and the messaging can also bite its own tail by subverting the medium and stunting its growth.

this is where i think design should play a role: in demonstrating the pitfalls of this approach, and crafting ways to make technology seem less daunting without mindlessly infusing it with human-likeness. so, instead of submissively gilding engineered products for sale, designers should proactively challenge6 the unsolicited development of features like sarcastic dialogue, feminine/submissive persona, filled-pauses and breathing sounds in conversational agents.

for our good and their own, today’s machines must not be allowed to set false expectations: new mediums invite new behaviours, and humans — who’re better at adapting to changing landscapes than engineers give them credit for — can be coaxed to embrace new technologies through appropriately designed interfaces.7

or else: we’re only promoting dogmatism.8

humane is a buzz-word in the industry today ; i’m all for it, as long as it isn’t conflated with human-like. humane is necessary ; mindlessly human-like is problematic: inconsiderate, dishonest, immoral and ultimately inhumane.

  1. the criticism sounded something like this: “if you know that it’s a machine you’re on phone with, you may get creeped-out by backchannels like “uh-huh” or artificial breathing sounds ; if you don’t know, however, and find out after a call (that you’d just spoken with a machine), you may feel cheated.” — i wonder, though: if duplex helps automated-spam-calls become an unmanageably large nuisance, will people grow less addicted to their “always connected” lifestyles and look up at the sky more often? i think that would be nice. 

  2. for all the hype surrounding the rise and importance of conversational design, the tech-world still marginalises designers into cosmetic roles at the fringes of a development process. 

  3. woebot helps lonely people feel less depressed. — sidenote: i interviewed with woebot when they were hiring their first designer ; but, like so many other times, my passport and work-permits scuppered the conversation. 

  4. we live in an age where machines mediate human relationships: these relationships can be human–human, human–environmental, cultural–human, or some other combination. industrialised notions of human–machine interaction design do feel a bit narrow today. 

  5. a technology may manifest through any number of interfaces — yes — but one interface may also help any number of technologies manifest through it. technologies and interfaces are tightly interwoven ; neither should be considered dominant or primary (and neither should engineers or designers). 

  6. this ends-up being less about design, and more about corporate power-play. 

  7. my use of technology, interface and medium: google’s ranking-and-sorting algorithms are a technology ; its website and voice-assistant are interfaces (that allow me to interact with google’s technologies) ; and google-search serves as a medium. 

  8. i’m not a fan of the church of big-tech. it stinks.