Google’s New Chatbot Takes up the Challenge


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ONCE, NOT TOO long ago, humans couldn’t talk with their computers. You could talk at them—or, really, type at them—and they’d respond like computers. Like machines. They didn’t exactly converse. And that was fine. You didn’t expect them to.

Today things are different. Wednesday at Google  I/O, the company’s blockbuster annual conference, the company unveiled two new artificially intelligent products—a messaging app called Allo and an Amazon Echo-like device called Google Home—that rely on a “conversational user interface.” You talk, they talk back… and they do what you tell them, and maybe more.

Conversational user interfaces aren’t a new idea; computer scientists have been experimenting with the technology for decades, but they’ve found new life in virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri and chatbot-inhabited messenger apps like Facebook Messenger. When they work well, they can answer questions, schedule meetings, check your bank balance, and even pay your rent. The potential is enormous. But if Siri has ever given you directions to someplace you didn’t ask for, or Echo has told you it couldn’t answer your question, you’re familiar with the challenges. Google’s engineers and designers are on a mission to confront those challenges, and fulfill the potential of the conversational interface.

One of the biggest problems users have with these increasingly popular interfaces is figuring out what they do—what designers call “discoverability.” “If you want people to gradually adopt a new interface, it has to be really easy for it to work the first time,” says Alan Black, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute. “And that’s hard, because if people don’t know what the system can do, they don’t know how to speak to it.”

Google’s chatbot, called the Google search assistant, will show up in Allo when it comes out later this year, and eventually live across a range of products. It handles the discoverability problem by being super-chatty. With any incoming message it suggests replies, links, or actions based on the context of your conversation. Google calls them “suggestion chips.” If, from inside Allo, you ask the Google search assistant how to roast a chicken, it not only answers your question, it might also serve up suggestion chips that you can tap to browse recipes, or complementary dishes.

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