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Chatbots were the next big thing: what happened? (growthbot.org)
720 points by cjauvin on June 8, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 500 comments

Chatbots were never the “next big thing” by any measurable metric other than artificial hype created by the companies trying to create a new platform for extracting revenue and data from users.

For this argument to make any sense, there would need to be data that showed growing usage of chatbots, followed by a plateau and then a drop off. I’m not sure what that data looks like, but I’m pretty sure there was never a high growth phase where users were actually interacting with the chatbots. It was all hype created by Facebook and a few idiotic VCs who wasted money on what they thought would be the “next App Store.”

I, and many others, were saying around the time of this hype that chatbots would never become a category defining product, simply due to inherent usability flaws in their design that have been discussed ad nauseum.

The only people surprised that chatbots failed to become the “next big thing” are the people who mistakenly thought they ever would be. This assumption was never grounded in any real data of user desires or real problems. Chatbots were then, and are now, a solution looking for a problem. I’m not surprised at all.

I fully agree with you. I also dismissed Google Glass and other hypes. I feel smart about that.

On the other hand, if someone would have pitched Facebook to me, I would have also dismissed it. I keep that mind to stay humble.

For any trend/hype there will always be people dismissing and praising it. Thus, if it is successful or not, there will be people who say "I told you so" afterwards.

It does not matter what a comment on HN says. You personally have to decide, if you want to speculate/invest in some hype or not. You have to decide which new technology you learn and which ones you ignore. In hindsight, it would have been great to learn machine learning five years ago.

Eh, Facebook was a natural evolution of social networks going back to MySpace, Friendstr, SixDegrees. Each one fixing mistakes of the past and becoming the next big thing until their own mistakes caught up to them.

The one that I dismissed was Twitter. In fact I thought it was a joke when I first heard about it, something making fun of how long winded boring blog posts on services like Livejournal tended to be. I also thought Vine would be doomed to fail.

I never thought Uber nor Airbnb would be successful. Who invites strangers in their home or car. I was told as a kid to never get in a stranger's car ... now, as an adult, I am riding with strangers all the time.

You never take taxis? Airbnb is even less of a stretch since B&Bs were the original hotel.

Uber was not a surprise at all for me because I'd been complaining about the bloated and horrible taxicab system for many years. It was a market that was crying out for disruption. I remember in 2008 my local taxicab company had exactly two ways to hail a cab: phone or fax. They might or might not show up at the appointed time, and they'd certainly never send you any kind of updates. It cost upwards of $5 to step into the cab, and after that there were fees out the wazoo (per 1/6th mile fee, per 45 seconds fee, fee for having a bag, a fuel surcharge, a license surcharge, a regulatory recovery surcharge, and a couple others I forget). The cabs might have credit card readers but they were always broken so it was cash only. Drivers took weirdly roundabout backroads paths and always claimed it was fastest if you asked them about it, even though I knew the highway was not busy at 4am. Every single thing about the experience sucked. When they started crying later that Uber was killing their business my response was "good".

>Uber was not a surprise at all for me...

When I moved to the US in 2003, the lack of something like Uber was a surprise.

Not in the smartphone-app sense, of course (those didn't exist yet), but in the sense of regular-Joes-making-a-buck-giving-a-ride sense.

Back in Ukraine, there was no taxicab monopoly. You could hail a ride on the street simply by raising your hand - and someone would pick you up pretty fast. Some people did it for a living, some would use the extra income on the way to/from work if you were going in the same direction (not unlikely if you are standing on a major street going to downtown, for example).

The fares were unregulated and negotiated on the spot, but there was an equilibrium point for every route. (Unless you were a tourist, in which case you'll be almost surely ripped off - nothing any local would care about though).

And, of course, there was no rating system, which took away the incentives for drivers to go out of their way to maintain a nice appearance. Don't like it, don't take the ride; the next car is will stop by a minute later for you, the next passenger will be around the corner for the driver.

Other than the lack of ratings and fixed pricing, this worked like Uber works now in other aspects.

What might be surprising is that central pricing and ratings really don't make ridesharing much different from what I described. It made the system more accepted in the US, but the end result is pretty much the same: I can hail a ride anywhere from people I don't know. The system stabilizes at a price point and expected level of service.

And there's a remarkable similarity in the downsides of this system. My father made some money giving rides back in Ukraine between jobs, and while the short-term revenue looked great (compared to average monthly salaries), so much of it went into gas and maintenance that the whole gig was hardly worth it - and it took more time than a job.

This is what Uber drivers are discovering themselves right now. The ones who took out loans for their shiny cars are especially screwed.

>Not in the smartphone-app sense, of course (those didn't exist yet), but in the sense of regular-Joes-making-a-buck-giving-a-ride sense.

These existed nationwide in the United States in the early days of the 20th century, until about WWII. In many cities they were called "jitneys." Some were organized enough to operate as simple, private, anonymous bus companies with fixed (but flexible) routes.

They started disappearing after WWII when most people outside the urban cores got a car, and municipal governments started taking over public transit.

These still exist in some places, but are mostly in ethnic minority communities and spread by word-of-mouth. (I know first-hand because I got hit head-on by one full of schoolchildren in the late 90's.)

I can’t speak to all of the US, but circa 2010 there was still a ton of people driving “private cars” in Brooklyn. You would negotiate up front with the driver and pay cash. My guess is 100% of those guys use Uber now.

True, but you wouldn't hail them from a random location in the city. You'd have to be in the right place to find them.

Except Uber didn't start as a taxi replacement company. If you only remember it as a taxi company it was already after it had started to become successful.

It was initially a carpooling app. The original pitch was that regular drivers would just drive to their own intended location and have an ability to see people on route who wanted to go the same way. Much harder to pick that idea out as a future billion dollar company.

What are you talking about? The original pitch was a black car service to fix the hailing problems of SF. It was even originally called UberCab. https://medium.com/@gc/the-beginning-of-uber-7fb17e544851

The original pitch was a black car service, but the legend that TK talks about, in Paris in the snowstorm of December 2008, was that he could ask “anyone there” to drive him, which is closer to carpooling.

(I was at that conference: everything went wrong, but it was mostly super cold. Cars were stuck in slippery snow, so someone suggesting the idea of carpooling sounds odd, but I suspect anyone there would have loved to wait out the traffic inside a heated car.)

I think you are talking about Lyft not Uber.

Yup. Looks like it was me that misremembered. My mistake.

AirBnB is also less of a stretch because there were already pretty successful attempts paving the way for it.

I was using VRBO a decade ago for vacations. AirBnB is more distinguished by a slick UI than business model innovation.

Uber is still not a successful business model. It’s losing millions of dollars a quarter. Once they start charging enough not to have to subsidize rides and they can turn a profit and people still use them, then it can be called a success.

We still don’t know how price sensitive the average Uber customer is.

If I’m not mistaken in mature markets, like US, they are actually profitable. They lose money (a lot of it) to expand in new markets.

I've never taken an Uber in the original sense of car pooling. It's always been as a cab.

Before Twitter, people on AIM and similar services would use status messages to broadcast short little notes to their buddy list. I had the idea of turning that into a service in the early 2000s.

What surprised me was seeing a serious journalist like Wolf Blitzer regularly reading people's tweets on his prime time show.

The degree of Facebook (and Whatsapp and Messenger) amount of users is insane though. How many people possibly thought they would be at numbers or around 1.5B and 2.2B users?

I also thought twitter was a joke until I realized most Americans are too lazy to write a blog post, or even read one.

“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” - Mencken (paraphrased)


Twitter is the weird thing it is because it began with an SMS interface (hence 140 characters). It took off originally because you didn't need a smart phone or a data plan or a PC to use it.

I thought it took off because they managed to get celebrities on it.

This. Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore were amongst the first celebrities on Twitter to actually post the content themselves rather than by a manager/PR agent. This got a lot of media attention and many other celebs followed shortly after.

I still remember finding it strange to see how Ashton and Demi personally wrote short messages, since every form of communication from famous people at the time were formal statements released via the press.

That happened a couple of years after it initially took off. Celebrities only took to it after it had gained solid traction among Silicon Valley types and social media early adopters.

"Yo" did die (or at least appears zombified, with 32 Patreon supporters). One bit appears to be too few.

It’s not about being “lazy”. Most of the people I follow are both bloggers and podcasters. But not everything is not worthy of a blog post and I would hate for my RSS reader to be polluted with everything they tweet about (even if it is interesting.)

How many blog posts are being read and written by the French? The “Americans are too lazy” trope is just ridiculous.

I find that many comment like gp online are equally valid with the word “Americans” replaced with “people”. It irks me as well.

Yes, but it does preserve some uncertainty about the rest of the world. The author may only feel comfortable enough to make a comment about Americans.

This comic kind of captures what you two are getting at, though I think you are applying the idea a little more generally.


Glass wasn't hype by any means, it just didn't take hold in the consumer market (which, who's to say Google didn't predicate that). It's been in use by massive enterprises for years now, from Boeing to GE to large healthcare organizations.

The famous HN Dropbox comment!

I wouldn't dismiss Facebook for the simple fact that it plays to something deeply human: to connect with other people.

But while it does that, it also plays to something even more deeply human: to watch other people from afar, and to replace complex, anxiety-ridden face-to-face interactions with easier, gentler text-based communication.

Google Glass and all the other hyped techs never struck at anything deeply human. VR is nice and all as a tech, but it's not something we've always done.

I would say it is still early days for VR. I was a skeptic at first till I got my own VR rig, now I'm convinced it's the future even if I don't know what time-frame that is going to be. As for Google glass it was just a little ahead of it's time and it's even gaining traction on the enterprise side.

It seems you and GP are confusing VR and AR.

VR, virtual reality, is a complete immersion in a virtual world. A 3D game, a 3D movie, a 3D Minecraft, you name it.

AR, augmented reality, is additional "augmented" information in the real world.

VR is nowhere NEAR ready for mass consumer market. There's 2 screens on the glasses with very low resolution. Because the glasses are very much near the eyes, pixels are very apparent. That's ugly. Furthermore, you need a big fat gaming rig with a 1000 EUR/USD graphics card for the current low resolution. And then there is the issue of the data transmission. Those huge wires (its not wireless yet, and wireless suffers from more lag). Finally, it is pricey.

AR from Google Glass flopped due to privacy concerns. It would aid users in their day to day life like a smartphone or smartwatch does. Its being used for this purpose in business settings (also due to its price) just like some other expensive tools by Microsoft such as Hololens and Surface Hub (84"). The user interface isn't quite there. For example I'd say eye tracking is useful. Some cars also get HUD in windscreen.

(YMMV but as a glass user who uses glasses which also work like sunglasses in the direct sunlight, I'd love to have a pimped glasses with AR.)

Anyway, in short, my conclusion, is:

VR is mostly fun, though some useful sims (e.g. flight trainers, but also things like 3D meetings would make Hyperloop and air travel redundant which saves time & environment) do use it as well. It is more of a niche than AR. AR is going to be part of our every day life in useful/productive ways. AR will be vastly more rampant, and it will be in use in a massive scale earlier than VR will be.

As a side thought imagine going on vacation in VR and it being just like the real thing cause you're on a robot. Your 5 senses get stimulated while you walk through Cairo. You smell the spice whilst you walk through the market on your robot which you control. Why actually still go on vacation then? I already have enough pleasure with Google Photos or the new Windows 10 login screen as it is. Going to see the Eifel Tower which you already saw hundreds of time on pictures is boring as is receiving that piece of metal on a postcard. Oh well.

"It seems you and GP are confusing VR and AR" I'm doing no such thing. I don't know where in my comment you got such an impression. If you bothered to read it you'll see I mention that I own a VR rig. I certainly know the difference. Also I would have agreed with your comment about VR being nowhere ready 2 years ago. While it's not quite ready for mass market primetime it's definitely at a stage where the average Joe can get a lot of mileage out of it (unlike AR which is mostly hype at the moment). I would say it's currently at the stage that PCs where at in the mid 80's. BTW you don't need a 'big fat gaming rig' and a dedicated graphics card - I don't know where you are but here in the US you can get the Oculus Go which is a standalone unit for less than $200. It's not the full VR experience but its good enough that I would consider buying it over a gaming console or even a tablet. I think you should have more experience with VR before you make grandiose statements knocking it publicly. As for AR I haven't really had a lot of opportunity to try it out (except for Glass). It may well overtake VR at some point but at the moment most AR projects are at the concept stage or just hype.

> If you bothered to read it

Oh I read your post, its against HN guidelines to assume and express someone else has not read your post or the content.

If you read the post of your GP (and that GP as well) you'll see they're casually mixing up AR and VR. You do the same, and I called you all out on the difference between the two. There's no need to feel offended about that.

You say you haven't had an opportunity to try AR, and mention Google Glass. The thing is, Google Glass is just one example of AR (a very known one) and also a very multi-functional one. The usability I had in mind is more subtle, more specific.

Examples: Layar has been out for ages (it adds AR on your smartphone screen from camera input e.g. adding complimentary digital info to a paper magazine or food you bought), if you have multiple smartphone cameras you use it, LIDAR uses it, Google Maps ecosystem as well (Street View for example). AI in general can use it. There's all kind of usages of AR such as this traffic light [1]. Not even mentioning about the experiment on how biking lanes are being lit up due to solar energy in the evening/night. Google Glass could've potentially done that all, but there's no reason that cannot exist in the future. It was just the wrong company to come first with the product. Google was also too early with it, just like Apple Newton was too early and GM was too early with the EV.

My first time using VR was on vacation in Spain as a child, using those red/green glasses we were watching a dinosaur movie. It was rather primitive, but immersive. I'm not anti; I just see it rather limited. I've read enough reviews about VR glasses and read reviews of VR games -including realistic screenshots- to know that the quality isn't there yet.

Long-term, VR will make more impact, but that's because it is so different whereas AR is rather complimentary. On the short term, AR is going to be more widespread and useful. I mean, I'd love a HUD on my windscreen telling me I am speeding. Like, of course.

[1] https://dutchreview.com/news/dutch/smart-crossing-dutch-inve...

>If you read the post of your GP (and that GP as well)

>Its against HN guidelines to assume and express someone else has not read your post or the content

Hmmm. Uh-huh well, if you're talking about limited AR such as in HUDs or Pokemon Go or glass, that's already here and it's cool and useful, but not very exciting (at least to me). No doubt AR will be a thing in everyday life. I don't see why people (myself included) talk about both technologies (AR & VR) as if its a zero-sum game and we'll only have one but not the other. No reason they both can't exist in the brave new future.

I wasn't implying you didn't read the posts (like you implied with "If you bothered to read it"). I asked the reader (e.g. you) to read the posts, as in reread them. That's a subtle difference. I didn't say reread but that's what I meant though. When I wrote that, I actually went to reread them myself to double check if I really misunderstood the context. Frankly, after rereading it, I came to the conclusion nope I did not though I might've better replied to your parent. Either way, the two were clearly being mixed up throughout this discussion.

I'd say, that when AR is "boring" that actually means it succeeds. It blends in without being annoying.

If you remember the time when desktops and mobile phones and smartphones become boring; that is when they started to gain traction among the common man; arguably, when they started to become good.

Take the traffic light example I mentioned earlier. If that's rolled out and seen as "boring", I'm happy with it. Because that means it works. Right now, it isn't yet boring, btw. It is seen as an innovation.

Same with innovations like electric vehicle and autonomous cars. Once they're "boring", their functionality is accepted. And we are talking about the "West"; it hasn't been adopted in poorer countries at all, not yet.

VR def. has the wow factor, I agree on that. Look at all the VR movies the past 30 years. AR is much less apparent, though its there as well.

Ultimately, for me games are just spielerei they might be fun (not so much for me anymore as I grow older); they have little to nothing to do with productivity. AR is going to be more useful for productivity than VR. I just don't see a lot of use for VR, especially not on the short term. You can notice this how the VR glasses are largely marketed for gaming, while AR has professional applications which -ultimately- aim to make our lives easier.

>I wasn't implying you didn't read the posts (like you implied with "If you bothered to read it")

My apologies, my tone was probably a little aggressive.

Gaming is the original VR killer app intended to gin up interest and spur development but current VR offerings go beyond that. One of the more interesting applications so far is 'live events' where your digital avatar can attend live sporting events, concerts etc with other digital avatars (you have to experience this to understand what a potential game changer this is). Even watching regular (i.e 2D) movies in an immersive environment on my headset is more fun than watching it on my tv, with the drawback that as of now you can't share the experience with other people not wearing a headset. I'm just scratching the surface of content that is already available NOW (there's even porn if that's your thing, though I personally don't find this very compelling mostly because of the low resolution). Ultimately, if things go the way I think they might, your VR headset would potentially replace not just your gaming console but also your TV set and your laptop/home office (currently I can play chess in a virtual room with only primitive controllers so I don't think working while completely immersed in a virtual environment is a long way off). If you do have the chance I encourage you to take some time to catch up with the current state of the art.

I agree with you that 'boring' is good but in the world we live in unfortunately new tech has to be 'sexy' and 'exciting' to attract venture money and developer interest it needs to get to the boring stage.

Of course, there are wireless VR headsets. Check out the Oculus Go. I think this might be the start of VR going mainstream.

Interesting, didn't know that, but you'll need a hell of a rig to render two screen of like say 4k. And the quality isn't like having a 4k TV at 2 or 3 meters distance.

The requirement of a high-end GPU, and the current price of high-end GPUs thanks to the cryptocurrency mania, meddle with the adoption.

We're far from VR being mainstream; AR costs far less resources.

Yeah I think it will take another couple of years for VR to become mainstream (i.e. smartphone mainstream). But I think the Oculus Go is the beginning of the mainstream adoption (maybe like a Palm, and we need 1-2 years more for the "iPhone").

From my experience, VR is a huge gamechanger (a new paradigm that will enable a lot of new innovation) whereas AR is also cool but doesn't have that new paradigm potential (like e.g. the internet, smartphones etc. did).

Google Glass and chatbots solve both something though. Onboarding new users in production and reducing customer queries

This is an excellent point!

We should also keep in mind that chatbots are clearly a thing that people want; we're just using capitalism to test whether society, technology, etc. are "there" yet, so it's not entirely irrational for investment to flow into this area. (We might debate the scale of the investments, or we can just let the market determine that for us.)

I think there's a lot of hate in this thread for the bot concept. Yeah, most of these text-based bots are bad and useless. Expecting to chat with a computer over text and get meaningful results is a big request, and without the best of the best NLP researchers, you're not going to get anywhere.

However, I do think there's some truth to this article - the rise of digital assistants in Google Home, Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri, is, in a sense, the rise of the chat bot. You can text them and they'll do things. You can talk to them and they'll do things. You can even get them to schedule a haircut for you[0], as Google recently demonstrated. I think these bots are semantically identical to what we think of chat bots as doing. If you would've told me 3 or 4 years ago, that people would willingly let a "bot" into their home that listens to everything they say and talks back, I would've been skeptical, to say the least. Now, even my hippie roommate has one of these things. I still don't get it, but to claim that "bots are dead, long live humans" misses the mark about how fast speech to computer/computer to speech tech is evolving. Watch the video and be... amazed:


So yeah, the idiot VCs missed the mark - this isn't going to be a consumer revolution, led by a few scrappy start ups, one-man teams, and dreamers. It's a revolution in data collection, human-computer interaction, and AI that's already been taking place behind the scenes at Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon for years, and will continue to as long as they hold the tech world's best AI talent.

Articles on the features that get real use seem to suggest that people tend not to use these home assistants much, and if they do, it tends to be for music or turning on the lights: http://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-echo-most-used-feature...

Which is to say, they're not getting a whole lot of usage of features you might consider to be chatbot functionality.

I think there is a huge discoverability problem created by the limitations of these devices. Because we don't believe it can understand anything we say, we instead limit our vocabulary and interactions to what we are confident they will understand. It's the opposite of AI in that this is the machine training us how to communicate with it. So we sit there barking out commands because we are unsure of what it can handle, creating a giant hunt-and-peck problem.

This, to me, is likely why Amazon sends me emails saying "What can Alexa do now?"

Perhaps the assistants could have more initiative then.

Ex: "Hi (...), since you always turn off the heater when you leave, would you like me to schedule to always do it for you?"

But there's a big problem in finding the right moment. At many times I'd probably be annoyed.

This. I had to disable google's "assistant" notifications because it kept pestering me about things I had no interest in. They always seem to have an "I see you're trying to write a letter. Do want some help?" clippyesque feel to them. When I activate a system is probably the only time it's ok to add a guiding interaction (like do you want me to make this default?). I really wish I could tell the voice activated things, "Ok, from now on when I say to play 'rockin beats' I'm talking about my Pandora channel, don't make me say 'play rockin beats on pandora' every time." I do almost the same things every day with Alexa, but it still messes up simple context. For instance: I will never ask for alexa for news while THE ALARM IS GOING OFF. If it "hears" news while the alarm is going off then it heard wrong. I said SNOOZE.

That’s exactly the direction Apple is taking with their Siri Shortcuts, it can tell when you’re performing actions and then later suggest them in similar circumstances.

Anecdote: I've discovered features with Alexa on accident before. I was watching Jeopardy at my parents house and someone yelled that Jeopardy was on, and Alexa was like "let's play Jeopardy!" and booted up a game for us. I would have had no idea that Alexa could do that if it weren't for the fact that it's.. uh.. constantly listening to everything that goes on in your house.

It reminds me in the early days of "smart phones" people would say where is the Linux phone OS we keep hearing about. They just didn't understand that Android was Linux based.

The Voice Assistance is a vocal chatbot. People were thinking it was going to be text.

No one missed anything except the actual product everyone was talking about. I feel like this happens all the time. We get caught into one strict interpenetration and miss the HUGE thing staring at our face, or ears in this instance.

> It reminds me in the early days of "smart phones" people would say where is the Linux phone OS we keep hearing about. They just didn't understand that Android was Linux based.

It's actually the people who believe that Android is Linux-based that are mistaken. If you write for Android, you write for Android and nothing more. You can't just run the application on a regular Linux (i.e. the one with libc and X11), and if Google ever rips Linux kernel out of it and replaces with, say, DOS, most of the applications won't even need to be recompiled, because they were using Android's API/ABI.

That changes nothing about Android being Linux based, though. The word "based" has a definition, and you're trying to change it.

Then what does it mean "to be based on"? What's its definition, and a one that's well-established and commonly agreed upon, since you're trying to invoke it?

"a fundamental principle or groundwork; foundation; basis"[1]

[1] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/based

And in what way is the Linux kernel the "fundamental principle" or "foundation" of Android? How is it so important that you can rip it out and replace with something totally different without much change to the applications running on top?

You can replace NT with Linux (or Linux with NT) as well. Userspace has nothing to do with this, kernel has its API and the userspace is built on top of it

> You can replace NT with Linux (or Linux with NT) as well.

No, not quite, not without enormous effort. Look at Cygwin or WSL or Wine: tons of work poured into and still not there yet.

On the other hand, typical Android application only ever touches Android's API and doesn't even leave its JVM. Replacing whole kernel (with obvious single point of work in Java interpreter) would be practically invisible.

I think you’re confused about Linux being anything more than a kernel

How so? Android runs on the Linux Kernel.

Ehhhh... I'd say they're less effective than a simple switch so far. Like the chatbots that are good in constrained environments because they're glorified menu systems.

When we can reasonably "chat" with our voice assistants then we have actually gotten there. More specifically, when I can tell my voice chatbot I just want to say "alexa" in the morning when the alarm goes off to snooze. Or when they are adaptable and pattern observant enough that I can say "alexa the usual" in the morning and get the higher volume as I walk through the house and news and my favorite podcast as I ask for every morning. When they come close to accomplishing those things, then we will have vocal chatbots. When they can "remember" just as much as the original Eliza chatbot then we will be there. Currently they are more like vocal light switches than vocal chatbots.

Indeed. The bot interface is being produced by the giants because they are the only ones with the budget for it. Just like google was the only firm with the budget to make self driving cars actually work, and will likely dominate that field for years to come as a result.

There will be room for startups to put the glue between the bots be everything else, but the core tech for the conversational interface is not going to come from startups.

> the rise of digital assistants in Google Home, Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri, is, in a sense, the rise of the chat bot

Actually, I'm still quite bullish on this. Advocates always talk about how 'VUI' (Voice User Interfaces) will be the next big thing but from what I've observed most people - actual users, not financially invested in their success - still remain quite bullish on them, or they only use them to set timers.

I don't believe Amazon, Google, or Apple have ever actually released sales figures for their assistants. I believe its because the numbers would look so insignificant compared to everything else.

Do you mean bearish? If not, your comment confuses me.

Huh, apparently I do. It looks like I've been using that word incorrectly for quite a while.

I mean that I'm, put lightly, skeptical of the whole digital voice assistant thing.

When I first heard the terms bearish and bullish I thought they were confusing and un-intuitive... Until I heard the following explanation: Bulls thrust their horns up. Bears swipe their claws down. Bulls horn up, Bears claw down. After that it was easy to remember and now it's second nature.

You're one of today's lucky 10,000! :D https://xkcd.com/1053/

Huh. I always just thought of it as bears hibernating / being lethargic.

And the other ones the other one.

ahhh can see that. Bears are lumbering and Bulls are wildly exhuberant. Although, usually that exhuberance smashes everything in it's path (China shop) or tries to fling a human and gore them (rodeo). Then again maybe that is still apt -- everyone is happy about a bull market until it gets out of control and we are all flung off if it!

I can never remember which is which. Thanks for that mnemonic!

The expectation for chatbots to completely solve and answer user questions and take over support is as flawed as the expectation that self-driving technologies in cars allow people to watch Youtube videos and not pay attention to the road or have a hand on the wheel.

The successful bots are ones that don't attempt to understand and respond to every single question perfectly, but instead act as a supplemental tool / guide and offering concrete decision points and actions for the user to take. For example, instead of asking "How can we reach you?" and letting the user enter free text and figuring out if the user entered a phone number or email or some random text that just short circuits the bot, show two buttons "Via email", "Via phone" and clicking each one would then ask for an email, or phone number.

The successful bots also know when to failover to a human being and failing over fast. I've hardly ever had a good experience dealing with sites that employ chat bots and it's not great to be frustrated by a bot when I'm already an angry customer who hasn't received my order.

The one case where chatbots were better than people was at a company I used to work for. We kept getting customers contacting us via facebook to ask the same questions over and over again. "How much does `x` cost?" "When are you open?" "Where is your location?" "Do you have `y`?"

I had to have an internet-connected phone on me at all times because people would send messages at any hour and response time was a factor in our discoverability on facebook.

Of course all of these questions were answered on our website (AND ON OUR FACEBOOK PAGE) but simply responding with a URL resulted in attrition. So I found myself running through the same script several times, all day, all night, every day, every night.

The best solution would have been to set up some kind of text parser which would allow people to navigate the website through facebook messenger (oversimplifying) and then alert a human if it couldn't parse the input. We could even have hooked it into the comment feed because facebook was really bad at notifying us of comments. Taking it a step further, the Mero Mero's dream of offering facebook marketing to other companies as a service would actually be reasonable, because it wouldn't just be me sending out hundreds of copypastas 24-hours a day, forever. But I was never able to put a system together because of other time-consuming duties the company needed me to perform.

This, a million times this.

This is how chatbot functionality should be implemented. Like those "chat with us" links you see on a website that drops you into a window and you get put in someone's queue. It doesn't actually wake them up until the chatbot frontend can't handle the users' request using NLP/decision trees/regex (depending on your level of sophistication of user), and then the whole log is sent to the tech support guy when they get free of the last chat and can read through it and take control.

Maybe the optimistic timelines are flawed but I think its at least reasonable to believe we'll get there someday, in regards to both intelligent chatbot + self-driving tech

I think the problem is framing, or essentially what is a “chat bot”.

20 years ago “artificial intelligence” where taboo words for anyone hoping any funding. It would be called ‘expert system’ or ‘automated agent’ or whatever else that didn’t make people show you the door.

I think what you put as “chat bots” is having the same issue. The concept has been deployed at super large scale and people interact with bots everyday, it’s just not marketed as such.

Currently my phone company, my ISP, my health insurance company, the last airline customer support I had to deal with, they all process a crazy amount of interactions, and all the basic steps were clearly handled by a bot until I got escalated to a human. They are all real world huge scale applications, I don’t know by what other metrics they would be deemed as “failures”, and I don’t think they plateaued, I expect it’s still growing.

> I don’t know by what other metrics they would be deemed as “failures”

Usability? Sure, someone keeps paying for them, but they're not the people who get stuck interacting with them...

It’s not too bad though.

Human operators on big operations where already bound to a script for years now, and the “human contact” part was mostly spelling letters and numbers over the phone.

I’m more than happy it switched to chat, and both sides can deal with the exchange asynchronously, in particual with the bot handling the requirements to open the user info.

I feel it’s actually a win-win situation, as incredible as it seems regarding customer support technology.

> The concept has been deployed at super large scale and people interact with bots everyday

Has it? Are these experiences people enjoy and would like to see more of?

Well, about 10 years ago before iPhone appeared, was the mobile the next big thing? In hindsight of course. How did the data look like before iPhone? Check out the chart in this article https://www.recode.net/2017/6/26/15821652/iphone-apple-10-ye...

There's no data before a breakthrough. We should be wary of hypes but at the same time we shouldn't diminish pioneers.

If you looked at the trend lines, Mobile was definitely growing in 1997 (https://www.statista.com/statistics/203688/handset-penetrati...)

I was working at Radio Shack in 1995-1996 and mobile phones were definitely starting to grow in popularity. By then, you already had subsidized “free” phones and mobile plans were around $35 a month.

Okay, maybe I wasn't clear enough.

When we say that "Mobile is eating the world" or something, we are not talking about the mobile phone we can make a call with but the phone we can use the internet and applications with.

Your data is about the mobile device that allowed us to make a phone call.

If you say that "this is also data" then we have that kind of data for chatbot as well, e.g., the number of sales of Alexa and Google Home devices, or Messenger installations, etc.

There is a mythical internal document at Amazon that describes the Alexa vision. They want basically the Star Trek computer, and they are making good progress toward that vision. And the investment they are making to achieve that goal is hard to overstate.

Yes, it will take a few years. But consider that there are now tens of millions of Alexa pucks out there. The bot may suck today, but it’s getting better quickly, and consumers are receptive and ready to reward the tech giants when they finally succeed.

Amazon are the best people at this as they have the technical ability, vision, and willingness to invest in long term projects.

AWS was not great in its first 5 years. Its capabilities 5 years ago were pretty good but nothing compared to today.

Google is bad at long term development, especially with Ruth Porat at CFO. Microsoft is mixed - for every Xbox and Hololens there's a Courier.

One thing missed in chatbots is that X dot AI is a chat bot that works pretty well. There are others that are similarly domain limited where the current interaction model is an email thread or a text conversation. These tend to be doing well.

I looked at X dot AI, but cannot justify the price. I would do 20 meetings a week and place a high value on my time, but to me their value proposition is simply not aligned with the price they are asking. I just don't believe it will help me that much.

As an aside, I tend to think about what I'd be prepared to pay for something before I click on the pricing page. In the case of X dot AI, it was about $5-10 per month. I'm sure it is good, but docusign (similar price) is MUCH more valuable to me - time kills deals and docusign helps bring them in. An AI bot that books in meetings just doesn't deliver the same ROI.

>Microsoft is mixed - for every Xbox and Hololens there's a Courier.

My perception of Microsoft is that it's a Hydra.

The upside is that it's not all bad! The head responsible for the product you care for might have been there for a long time, and is doing a really good job in keeping it up.

The downside is that the other heads might be doing something entirely different and turn the whole beast around .

And while all this is going on, some heads just get chopped off here and there.

(sniff Lumia sniff)

The courier concept is far from dead

I’d rather talk to a chatbot than send an email or shudder make a phone call. I’ve found my interactions with them to be good and they always hand me off to a real person if it gets too complicated. It seems to save me a lot of time when I use them usually.

I agree. I fully support chatbots for getting you to the right person or handling simple issues. There seem to be a lot fewer accidental hangups when using a chatbot.

But wait, 66% of tweets are reportedly generated by bots.[0] Maybe they aren't chatbots, in a strict sense, but it does seem like most Twitter "conversations" involve bots. There are lots of bots on Facebook too.[1] Automating typical social media behavior is laughably trivial.

0) https://www.vox.com/technology/2018/4/9/17214720/pew-study-b...

1) https://mashable.com/2017/11/02/facebook-phony-accounts-admi...

Yep. I remember tons of marketing/advertising people going around enthusiastically talking about how chatbots are "the next big thing." No professional UX people or engineers were really pushing the tech that I knew.

What I have understood from my little experience is usually the "next big things" - Always seem way to big in the start - There is good exponential acceptance initially - But then there is always slow acceptance rate

I think its more about chat then chatbots. Chat has already become the next big thing between customer to customer interaction. What chatbots are trying to do is enabling brands to start interacting with their customer on chat. Human-based support was always there but to able to interact with customers using chat during his/her complete lifecycle was not possible using human agents. But chatbot can solve that. We are moving back to chat because it is one of the two natural media of communication (voice/chat & gesture) to humans. The hype about chatbots was bad, resulting in everyone trying their own version of chatbots and fail. But for those who used it in its actual capabilities, it has done wonders. For some top financial brands of India, it has increased no. of people interacting with a brand to about 400% resulting in ~200% increase in marketing leads and lead quality by ~150%. This is actually the NEXT BIG THING for the marketing department. Also, chat apps are more evolved then SMS/phone apps which give user/customer more control over communication, resulting in happy customers.

Chatbots are not solving any problem as they are not a solution. Instead, they should be used as a tool to solve any other problem, just like AI/Crypto.

I began my career building IVR systems in the early 2000s (Nuance, etc). In college I worked at my university's speech recognition lab. I remember an uneasy feeling while building and testing my first speech application. I thought: "This is a statistical algorithm with nothing else behind it. It's just a good guesser over a very limited domain of 'knowledge'."

At the time the tech industry was hailing speech recognition as the next big thing. There was a lot of investment in speech: BeVocal, TellMe, Nuance, SpeechWorks, AT&T, L&H, etc. Replace your call center workers with automated systems, use voiceprints to secure sensitive transactions, etc. Amazing AI would effect cost savings and make your business efficient! Sound familiar?

Very few users actually liked these systems over the previous versions that just used the phone keypad. Poor recognition accuracy really pisses users off. And most of the time the recognition errors aren't the user's fault. Ever try to recognize speech on a cellular channel using an acoustic model trained on a landline channel? Crap! This was certainly a problem during the early 2000s because of the emerging mobile phone market.

The UIs (or VUIs as they were called) were awful since they mostly replicated the touchtone versions but added "you can say 'accounts' to...". They continue to be awful because, while speech recognition had gotten a lot of funding (DARPA, etc) in the past, the UI aspects were pretty much ignored and underfunded. People interact very differently when speech is used as the medium. The interaction automatically becomes social. Social interactions with machines are decently well studied (Cliff Nass for one), but the very nuanced aspects are difficult to bake into an IVR system, especially under pressure to deliver on a deadline. The experience feels unnatural very quickly and users either run for the door or starts mashing the keypad.

Ultimately the web killed off industry interest in IVR systems. Want to know your account balance? Log in to a web site and it's right there. No need to dial in your account number, verification and run a gauntlet through a phone menu.

Fast-forward to today and chatbots are the new IVR systems, but without the speech-to-text portion. The speech-to-text portion is the easiest part by far in those types of systems. There's still the need for a parser (shallow or otherwise), a way to pair up queries with responses/actions, the ability to track a dialogue and its context, and most importantly, a "natural" feel to the interaction.

Chatting/texting and speaking are serial in nature; very slow and inefficient. A well-indexed FAQ or an intuitive, well-designed GUI is more useful than a chatbot. The former helps in shortening search time and the later helps at streamlining transactions. Information search and transacting comprise the majority of actions that users perform when they visit a site/system/application. When you talk to a human agent for these two types of actions, guess what they're using to assist you? The same interface you'd use if you served yourself. They just know it better.

As an aside, the only noticeable/innovative use of chatbots I've seen in the past 10 years is on porn sites. I really took notice of the messages in the chat window when it started nagging me for ignore it. I wouldn't be surprised this round of chatbots were inspired by that.

I think that did happen. Banks and utility companies started to offer chat-like interfaces (without a human responder) for services and help. The number of end-users could probably have been graphed as a steeply rising curve for a while. It just didn't justify the breathless expectations of the companies trying to sell chat interfaces at the time.

Yeah, this is the "trough of disillusionment" phase on the Gartner hype cycle. If anyone is looking at the exponential improvements in speech and text comprehension over the past years and unable to see that it will only get better from here, then it's not hard to imagine a future, where in 10 years chat bots are just as good as humans for any rote request.

And yet there are companies that are starting to make money from these things. Maybe this is a classic "can't take new tech and apply old business model" kind of thing.


Behind firewall, so here's a key quote:

Facebook’s early efforts to turn Messenger into a service that people can use for shopping or getting news or weather sputtered quickly. But two years on, the Messenger effort is showing signs of life.

Several developers say they have been selling more bots and applications through Messenger in recent months. Trip-booking service SnapTravel, for instance, has seen its cumulative sales through Messenger grow from around $1 million as of May 2017 to around $10 million now, according to CEO Hussein Fazal. Msg.ai, which develops tools for customer service and marketing for messaging apps, has seen enough of a pickup in business to hire a new executive and marketing team, said Msg.ai CEO Puneet Mehta.

Alexa and Google Home are simple chat bots. Say something and get a single, reasonably accurate response. They seem to be doing pretty well.

The little chat bot widgets never took off because they didn't solve NLP anywhere near as well as Amazon or Google did.

If a next gen chat bot can make a dinner reservation over the phone (like Google's demo), it definitely will be the next big thing.

So much of our day is communicating and if we can automate our communication effectively, it opens the doors for even greater productivity.

> I’m pretty sure there was never a high growth phase where users were actually interacting with the chatbots.

There was somewhere around 2003-2005, when a couple good ones started showing up on AIM. Since that was the IM of choice at the time, there was zero friction to actually interacting with one.

Anyone predicting it as a "next big thing" after around 2007 totally missed the actual hype and was trying to build on something users had already dismissed as not actually the future.

I remember being so unimpressed after Facebook's hype because their "bots" were no smarter than SmarterChild was back on AOL in the early 2000's. (Which was at least innovative for its time.)

I at least thought that there would be some Alexa/Siri-level AI going on, but most chat bots are about as intelligent as texting commands to an SMS short-code number.

I love this comment and I kind of want to replace "chatbots" with "cryptocurrency" in a few years.

It’s just like why all voice interfaces are shitty: no one has any idea what the thing can or cannot do. They have a hidden user experience but the interface makes it feel like you’re talking to a human, but it’s so far from being a human.

These interfaces are almost like a dark pattern because of how bad they are.

The audio interfaces are so bad I resort to one-word answers to every question, to get me to a human as fast as possible.

"Hi, in a few words, what can I help you with today?"

> "billing"

"It sounds like you have a question about your bill. I can help you with that! If you can give a few words to describe the reason you are calling, I can help you with your bill."

> "billing"

"OK, let me get you to a representative who can help!"

... instead of spending 10 minutes wrangling with the vapid AI, I can actually move on with my day after speaking to a human. Was this the future we envisioned in the 90s? I think not. Some systems let you spam 0 (zero) and it transfers to a human, but more and more are requiring you to interface with the system in some way, even if disabled or impaired.

"Please enter you account number"

> one two three etc

"Please hold"

"Hello this is agent a, Can I verify your X"

> It's XXXX

"Looks like you have <totally unrelated subject to what you called"

> Yeah but, I called for Y

"Oh ok"

> Y this, Y that, I need Y to do Z

"Let me forward you to an agent that can help you"

"Hello this is Agent Q"

> I need to do Y! damn it I've been on hold and transfering for 20 minutes

"I can help you with Y, but first, I need your account info


"Can you verify XYZW?"


"Ok sir, I'll need you to FAX it in"

> What, that's technologies from the 1920s

"I'm sorry sir, is there ANYTHING ELSE I can help you out with <condescending voice>"


"Would you like to take a survey?"

a week later, 7pm you get a robo call

"You had a call with Agent X how did that call go"

On the flipside, think of the joy of realizing you've finally been connected to a smart, competent person who is empowered to solve your problem. It is like finding a call center unicorn.

It really depends on what sort of organization you're dealing with. My credit union has always been a pleasure to deal with because their phone people are all hired and trained locally. On the other hand they only take calls during business hours which can be a little awkward when I'm in another timezone.

That's like saying death is a good thing because you still get to live a few decades.

That's not a terribly uncommon position, not everyone wants to live forever. Arguably it's a healthy attitude to take, since death will come for you eventually whether or not you make peace with that inevitability.

Lots of people say that every time the subject of human immortality arises.

I had this experience once and it was the result of finally getting a local call centre with better trained and empowered employees (most calls were being farmed out to overseas call centres which followed a very simple script).

Haha. Meanwhile all the business people meet at conferences and get high on AI and blockchain... get the real easy stuff right first!!!

This. So many times I dictate or enter my account number, only to have to say it again once I get an actual human.

Can't they see what I just typed before? Seriously, how bad can this be.

Sounds like calling any medical insurance or provider company in the US. It's the ubiquity of fax that is most flabbergasting.

It's one thing I don't miss at all after getting out of health tech. I hope to never read the phrase "secure fax" again.

This happens way too often. I wish I knew why systems ended up like this. Seems to be a business opportunity to fix them once and for all. This is 2018, we can do better

USAA really impressed me recently with a really slick feature: I was in their mobile application, and realized that what I wanted to do was a little too complex for what the app could handle. So I called support, and they (1) automatically identified me based on my number and (2) knew I was just using the app, and asked if I'd like to transfer directly to a person!

It is probably not the most complex integration technically, but it made the experience so smooth.

The app also has a useful feature to launch the website with session tokens, so it keeps you logged in if you were logged into the app.

So if you know where the thing you're looking for is on the website, you can just launch the website and use that.

Super simple feature but it seems like for so many companies, if you go online, it redirects you to their mobile site which has been "phased out" and tells you to the get their app, which you have and would have used if it had the feature you needed.

For such a "post computer" world it seems ridiculous how often I throw my hands up and find my laptop when trying to complete an online chore from my mobile.

USAA can be pretty great. In some ways they are ahead in tech, and have been for a long time. I do wish they'd add support for virtual credit cards tho.

It seems like it's a pattern to ensure security and discourage people from calling.

Vendors do this because they know they can get away with it, i.e. no perceived counter party risk. However what they don't understand, is that there is a HUGE counter party risk.

If its a charge on my credit card or checking, that's what I do, I give them this counter party risk. I call and do a charge back. Basically after 20 minutes with a vendor on hold, I declare that they are being unreasonable and they are unable or unwilling to refund me, I call the bank to do this charge back.

Now, what you tell the bank is critical. For whatever reason, vendors have been able to un-do my chargeback. So instead, I tell the bank that I dispute the charge -- but that I am also disputing the method of payment. So if they argue that the charge is valid in the investigation, I say that is fine -- however, the bank is not authorize on my behalf to pay them, and if they think the charge is authorized they must contact me to arrange a different method of payment. And under no circumstances can they use the bank to make payment. So yeah if they argue the charge is legit, that's fine, contact me (I wish I could put them on hold haha), and I'll pay them -- but the bank can't. The bank likes this because they are off the hook and I like it because they don't get to screw me. Worked every time.

If everyone did this, and made this a huge country party risk, these vendors would stop putting people on hold and ignoring or purposely inadequately addressing their greivences with their product/services.

A solution for me is to avoid dealing with shitty companies like this and seek online-only alternatives (with a good web UI), and failing that, if a shit company screws up and I can’t fix it quickly through their awful customer support I stop paying and let them call me.

It’s funny how they never keep their promises of calling you back until you actually stop giving them money. They also magically start paying more attention to what you say, and complaint letters that went unanswered for months and presumed “lost” suddenly become found and answered.

how can you dispute payment method especially when they tell that you used your card with OTP/signature giving your consent to use this payment method? Just trying to understand so can use this technique if situation arises :)

The reason why is that the phone tree/IVR and back-office systems were developed by someone like IBM, Accenture, Oracle, etc instead of actually competent developers. The budget being blown on the aforementioned companies, they have no choice but to stick with it.

'Agent' or 'representiative' will usually do it faster.

But I hear you. I recently wanted to change the ownership of my cellphone account. "Change ownership", "It sounds like you want to change cellphone plans, is that correct?", "Agent", "Okay, let me get you to a representative".

The only tasks these things are equipped to do, are the tasks that I can do via the company's online portal, and in a much less frustrating manner. I wonder who is actually using these things.

>> The only tasks these things are equipped to do, are the tasks that I can do via the company's online portal, and in a much less frustrating manner. I wonder who is actually using these things.

Old people. I'm not kidding. I used to do PCI compliance work with call centers. I've listened in on many a call to verify procedures. Call centers deal with an unending stream of older people who cannot or will not use "computers". They want to talk to a person on a phone. The people who are comfortable with the online interface only call when the online interface fails them. Old people go to the telephone first.

And there is a growing subset of old people who are functionally illiterate. I don't mean they don't know how to read, I mean their eyesight is diminished to the point that using the computer/phone/tablet is uncomfortable. Or their fingers don't move well enough for a keyboard/touchscreen. The phone is simple and reliable, not requiring either visual or physical dexterity.

I agree with everything you've said, and I feel really badly for how tech's dark patterns, crappy UX, and removal of humanity have treated the elderly.

Even non tech items like opening a bag of chips or box of crackers. I estimate that some packaging must require 40+ lbs to open. And I think of the "how it's made" show and how advanced manufacturing plants are. So they use all this tech to make a box of crackers as cheaply as possible, they have cameras fast enough to find and remove a single dark grain of rice in a torrential stream, but put zero thought into the UX experience and how the user can open the box.

It sounds like the simplest "tech fix" for this phone menu is once their account is found,

if (age > 60 ) sendToPerson ();

Furthermore, you could do "soft" account verification with their number. So if they call from a number that matches an elderly customer, just route it straight to a human, even though numbers can be spoofed it's not going to harm the customer to just assume it's them for that step only and fully verify their acct later.

There needs to be an alternate queue for people who call because the online interface failed.

"We are sorry our website didn't work, let me get you a human..."

You think old people don't just hit zero, pound, or say 'agent', to go to a person, to do the things the phone tree can do?

If they don't, is that because they don't know any better, or because they actually want to use the IVR?

My guess is either they go straight to a person, or they don't know that's an option. So if I'm correct (and I think the onus would be to prove that old people think differently than everyone else in this regard), these things exist to take advantage of the ignorance of old people to save a company some money. Greaaaat.

It's likely that these are for company itself. Ain't no one got time to deal with questions that are already explained on the website. This is made to filter mindless or lazy drones who don't want to search and its totally fair.

I've noticed that companies without IVR lines have switched from hold music to recordings that repeatedly list all the things you can handle online instead.

It's annoying when my issue isn't on the list, since I'll have to hear it 50 times. And it's incredibly aggravating when my issue is on the list, but the website doesn't actually work right. But it's not hard to understand why it happens.

Oh my Goddess, there is nothing worse than hearing: "It's on the website".

Yeah, that's unhelpful if "the website" is a sprawling, vast wasteland. Finding a specific thing on an obese, convoluted site is like trying to find the bucket of ice cream in Siberia. I always check the site first, so if I am calling... it's because your website is pretty bad.

So if I do find the thing I need and it is broken, then I call and dodge the idiot AI, and the beleaguered agent or offers the pathetic advice of: "It's on the website". I tell them it doesn't work, and this has led to two outcomes, either the agent tries to do it and it is so broken and fucked up that they tell me that's it's down and I have to call back or try the website days or weeks later, or I am lucky and the agent has to do a tedious task that I would have preferred to do myself online.

I was on hold with my insurance to file a claim, the IVR loop said for the third time "Did you know? You can file your claim online!" so I gave in, hung up, went online and all the form asks for is my contact information (phone + email) and my preferred method, so I enter email.

I get an email "Hey, I need to contact you so we can proceed, what method would you prefer?" I reply "Email, please" provide the information I assume the rep needs and which the online form should have been able to ask me and offer "What else do you need".

"Is there a time I can call you and [go over the script and fill out a form on my computer, as if you'd just stayed on hold hours ago]?"


I see you too have had to deal with AAA.

Like when you call an ISP because your internet is down and their recorded message goes "check our website...." well I'd love to but...

This is always annoying because the only reason I would ever call is if I've exhaustively tried every way to use the website and encountered some sort of roadblock/edge case where they tell you to call in.

This is stacked against power user just like anything else in this world. Technology is dumbed down for the average user whereas I believe we should strive to make the average user smarter instead. Not happening tho it seems.

So make getting to an agent at least as difficult as figuring out the web interface?

In other words, paying customers

I encountered a system that replied in the following way:

"I'm sorry, it looks like you want to talk to a representative. You need to answer a few questions first."

Very HAL-like.

And then when you get to the representative, he proceeds to ask you the exact same questions.

I think you answered your own question.

The people using the automated phone services are the people without internet or even computers.

Believe me, they exist ;)

Mashing # works well too.

Usually you'll get it try to say stuff, give up and then say "Thanks, I'll put you through to one of our team"

- Phone: Say "representative" to talk to an agent


- Phone: Sorry, I didn't get that. Say "representative" to talk to an agent


- Phone: Sorry, I didn't get that. let me transfer you to a representative

(This specific one happens on United calls, every single time.)

Or immediately hitting "0" once the prompt begins.

Bashing # several times quickly also works on a lot of systems. I always give it a go first time around - when it works, the voice bot typically says 'I didn't understand that, I will connect you with a.. [human]'.

Failing that I also resort to answering in one word answers. Bots can't handle any sort of ambiguity. Even when they manage to solve the language-parsing problem, people will still just bark one word answers at anything that looks or sounds remotely non-human[1] because that's how the early AI's trained us. The future-concept of people chatting away to robots is incredibly unlikely because to do that you need a level of empathy for the person/object you are talking to. We've clearly shown so far that we just don't have it for bots.


[1] Like the 19th century British Explorer shouting English at the natives.

Great points, one word answers/commands are, in our minds, the most compatible with a non-human system.


"Okay, let me get you to a representative."

If only "Shibboleet" worked: http://xkcd.com/806/

Unpacking it...

Haiku: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiku_%28operating_system%29

Penguin doll: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tux

Bearded dude with swords: http://blog.xkcd.com/2007/04/19/life-imitates-xkcd-part-ii-r...

which is a recursive reference to XKCD: http://xkcd.com/225/

Shibboleet: Shibboleth from Judges 12


combined with "leet"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leet from hacker culture

Bearded dude touching the blade of shin ken with his fingers - stick to programming bearded dude!

For many of these systems, you actually are talking to a human. The person listens to what you say then directs your call as (hopefully) appropriate. They don't have a mic, so clarifying questions are limited to buttons they can push on a glorified soundboard -- in your case it sounds like there were several departments that handle different aspects of billing and they were trying to sort out where to route your call.

The guy you were talking to eventually just routed you to someone with the same job but who has a mic, because you weren't giving him anything to go on and all he'd have been able to do is push the button again to ask you the exact same question (and having a person do it who can at least vary the inflection of the question is less infuriating than seemingly being stuck in a chatbot's infinite loop).


Source: have a friend who used to have this job. He has thankfully moved on to something less soul sucking than being a human literally pretending to be a robot.

That seems utterly nonsensical and dehumanizing. If you have a human greeter/operator, why not expose that to the customer? You are already paying for the human to be in the loop, why not benefit from the impression of a friendly human touch as well?

I'd love to know more about these operations, thanks for mentioning this.

Sadly I know very little more about it, other than being able to confirm that it really is dehumanizing. You're essentially being paid for your capability of performing simple natural language processing. The amount of courtesy that call-center people get is already pretty low, and bundle in that the frustrated person thinks they're talking to a robot that literally doesn't have feelings... he had some Bad Days (though he did say that you could let a lot of things slide by just reminding yourself of how comically nonsensical the whole situation is).

I'm just speculating here, but I suspect it means that the employee needs less training. All he needs is a quick flow-chart to route the calls. No training for how to talk to customers, no liability regarding things he might say, etc.

He was glad when he found another job.

I guess during the time the recording talks, they can listen to another call? So you end up having to hire less people.

> For many of these systems, you actually are talking to a human.

Is this practice widespread at all? I've worked at several contact center software companies with many customers and never once heard of this. It's always been automated IVR software controlling this. This sounds to my ears like maybe an outlier of a particularly awful contact center? I'd certainly pause before claiming this is how it works for "many of these systems".

That's actually a good question -- I don't know. My only window into this world was through him, and from his point of view it seemed widespread. I'll update my comment accordingly.

Edit: ahh I can no longer edit it :|

Wow, I'm sorry your friend had to go through that. This is the first time I've heard that this job actually exists!

It seems very strange to have a human who can listen but can't speak. I guess these companies think that by removing speech as a possibility, they're able to pay the employee less or something?

I think it's less about having to pay them less and more about less "customer interface" training, less concern about liability with regards to what the person might say, not having to worry about the potential stigma associated with a foreign accent, etc. But I'm just speculating here.

Weird! A Nuance license would be cheaper and works just as poorly.

A colleague of mine worked on the automated call center systems in the early 80s. The fastest way to get to a human is to cuss it out. This has worked for almost every system I’ve worked with so far (not sure if they’re using the same underlying software or if this behavior has been ported over). I only opt for this trick when I have no idea where to go given the menu read out to me because I like to think that support menu systems are designed to make it easier to navigate an organization’s own bureaucracy primarily, not necessarily to help me with my issues.

> "more and more are requiring you to interface with the system in some way, even if disabled or impaired."

In a sort of sick and very selfish way, I find myself somehow glad that blind and deaf people exist and are protected by accessibility legislation. I've often found accessibility features, particularly those in software, to be exceptionally useful even though my vision and hearing are fine.

Reminds me of a tech talk I went to last year, where the speaker/developer was trying to get on the Alexa hype train by building a "virtual doctor" application of some sort. He was very excited about the possibility of reducing physicians' administrative overhead, but my thought the whole time was, "seems like one of those terrible phone navigation systems..."

What I need to replace a virtual doctor is automated medical testing.

I need a machine to take all of the measurements and make decisions entirely without any kind of subjective judgement on my part.

Please, validate my health the same way automated testing and other such diagnostics checks work.

A fun hack on a lot of these systems is to start cursing a lot. It's like dialing "0" for operator.

This does work, but I worry the AI's will hold it against me someday.

I worry the human operators will hold it against me. The quality of assistance they provide may be biased by how irate and short tempered they think I am, even if I was just putting on a show for the robot.

I wouldn't expect a human to be offended by "operator agent fucfucfuc" spoken in a calm voice. There's no need to yell at the robot.

Hah, I really do, if ever so slightly, feel this way. Surprised by the down votes. Just disapprove because you frown on humor, which it wasn't intended as, or somehow did I offend you?

By and large, voice user interfaces still fail to abide by Grice's Maxims[1]. In your example, that's the maxim of manner:

> when one tries to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as one can in what one says, and where one avoids obscurity and ambiguity

In a sense, this is not unlike an unskilled and nervous attendant who, faced with a request that they don't understand, starts to chatter more and more in hopes of eliciting the information they really need.

[1]: https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/dravling/grice.html

There's also a rise of interfaces where talking to a human is not an option, and it's actually very challenging to break out of the default set of options. AirBNB is an example of this. This might be OK for the majority of calls, but when you need something outside of the normal set of problems, good luck. They're almost trying to not document the problems that they haven't already documented.

https://gethuman.com/ is an excellent resource!

I've noticed a sharp increase over the last year or two maybe in the number of companies that will bypass the awful classifier and connect you to a human immediately if you yell the word "fuck" into the phone because the machine thinks it's got an angry customer on the line. IME it weirdly has to be the word "fuck" and it has to be loud. I don't pretend to know all the ins-and-outs of IVR systems, but it seems like maybe one of the bigger service providers these companies use have this one weird trick programmed into them?

Note that a lot of the time, the point of those interfaces isn't to direct your call, so much as it is to collect information ahead-of-time, and transcribe it with voice-recognition, so that when you do begin speaking to a representative, they already have your question in front of them on the screen.

And yet for some reason I have to tell them my account number after I have already entered it on a keyboard. This frustrates me beyond belief as it says to me they have disparate software systems that don't talk to one another.

I'd like a "billing" tab on their website the most.

Always having to ask for permission is tiring.

I just yell “aaaaaaa” and usually after three attempts it gives up and sends me to the human.

I just mash the zero key frantically until it connects me to a human. Works ~95% of the time.

I find cursing at the bot gets me to a human right away. It's also therapeutic.

For me, these AI solutions always feel like I'm talking to a very stupid person who has no idea what's doing but has a booklet in possession that may or may not have the information that I'm looking for. Just give me that booklet and I will figure it out,geeez... What a frustration to deal with these smart machines.

With Siri or Google Assistant, you soon figure out few things that this very low intelligence person can do(like telling the weather or setting an alarm) and stick with it.

This is also why I'm excited about iOS12 with all these Siri shortcuts, instead of pretending that we are talking to a smart being let's have a concrete list of things that can do.

On the other hand I do believe that these voice interfaces have some potential, just the technology is not there yet.

Here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17265683

> very stupid person who has no idea what's doing but has a booklet in possession

When Siri first hit the Iphone and I was trying to figure out if it was useful for me (no), I named my phone Searle[1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_room#Chinese_room_thou...

Somebody I know described Siri as "less of a Chinese room, more of a tourist's Chinese phrasebook", and it seems to sum up the issue pretty well.

Maybe we should rename it to artificial stupidity.

Some are actively designed to make you give up on the call, at least that is what it seems like to me.

How many times have you called and the prompts go:

Press 1 to talk with sales Press 2 to talk with marketing .... Press 9 to talk to tech support, the only reason anybody dialed this number

Then: Speak your 18 digit account number, being sure to pause between each digit to make sure the computer records it correctly.

Then: Speak your phone number

Then: Speak your 24 digit hexadecimal product code

Finally you get through to a person and 100% of the time they ask you for all of that information again so they can type it in (and get it wrong).

And even when you get a person on the line they make you go back and do all of the stuff you already tried before finally transferring you to someone with half a clue.

I work for a large ISP. The reason why tech support ask again for information is one of these, or any combination.

a) The backoffice is really shit, broken, and doesn't even display any info (down, badly designed, etc)

b) Backoffice and/or VPN connection from outsourced call center to ISP is really slow, so they work faster by asking info.

c) CRM/Customer database has no consisten quality information, so agents do not trust it.

I may forget something, but those are the most common ones.

All of that buck-passing doesn't explain why the info is requested in the first place.

So they can know who they are talking to. IDK in the US, in Spain most services use DNI (national identity document 00000000A) to identify a client and the telephone number as most easy way to know which location is the customer asking info about (people might have more than one landline, DSL or whatever service).

Spanish law also require a second ID verification to disclose some information (let's say your wifi password), in our case it's the las 4 digits of the bank account number.

Also to pipeline you into different call centers, because it won't be reasonable to demand agents to know all the tech and commercial info about the company, it's just too much.

Walgreens prescription refill has a good voice input system. It doesn't pretend to be intelligent. But you can read a long prescription number to it, speaking rapidly, and it gets it right. It's better than humans for that.

I suspect most of the time the agents hate the systems like you describe as much as the callers. They are actually trying to make things work better and faster by asking for this info, so when you have to repeat it it's a failure rather than a deliberate design decision...

Time spent talking to a robot is free, people are expensive. So the company prefers 1hr with robots + 1minute with human, over 10 minutes with each. It's customer-hostile though, raising the cost of the service in a hidden way.

And I don't even want to blame the interfaces entirely. To me the real problem is people building and deploying things when there is a giant gap between hype and reality.

The Web was legitimately the next big thing. And after that, mobile. Both of them have changed our lives in deep and lasting ways. But we as an industry are absurdly hungry for the next, next big thing.

How many dumb-ass voice and bot and AI and blockchain projects are there out there now? That basically don't work, but have been shipped anyhow? How many millions of dollars have been wasted? And really I should say billions. Theranos alone burned through $1.2 billion of hype. And there was the wave of "Uber for X" companies, busily failing to replicate the business model of a company whose success still isn't a given.

I should be clear that I'm not opposed to trying new stuff. I'm all for it! But I think if we explore technological possibilities with less flagrant waste, we'll learn more. And be able to explore more.

There are a lot of smart and motivated people putting effort into voice interfaces. It's the past (we've been speaking for over a hundred thousand years) and it is the future. It will take some time, but I'm pretty confident that computers interacting with our auditory cortex will replace small slabs of glass that we look at and touch for many tasks.

I think that's highly unlikely. We've had radio for 100 years. The written word is still thriving and TV gets twice as much time from people as radio does. Audio's fine for some things, but it's so very limited.

And as an aside, we haven't really had voice-only interfaces for 100k years. Really, they've only existed since the telephone. What existed previous to that was humans, whose in-person interactions are almost always far more than voice. People have different estimates of the amount of information conveyed in a conversation through expression, gesture, posture, glance, and the like, but it's never a small amount.

While I didn't say "voice-only", your point is still quite valid that there is non-verbal information.

My point is that voice is a powerful and ancient channel, and it's about time that computers leverage that channel.

You did say "replace small slabs of glass that we look at and touch", so I think "voice-only" was a reasonable interpretation.

As I said, I'm all for trying new stuff. We should look at the extent to which computers can usefully leverage that channel. But I don't think we should presume that it will be particularly useful.

There's an issue of trust, as well. When I call a support number, and I get a robotic voice that assures me I can speak to it as if it were a person in plain language, I simply don't believe it.

It's just not true, either. So I end up trying to figure out how to structure my query so the robot on the other end will understand what I want, instead of just saying what I want.

In the end, I just repeat "human" and mash the 0 button over and over until I get a real person to talk to.

It's not unlike a programming language that attempts to resemble written English. Sure it looks like English at first, but really there is a rigid API there that you must adhere to, and that breaks any resemblance to natural language; at which point you wonder, why make it look like English in the first place?

Also a problem with Apple's "3D Touch."

They hide key functions behind a 3D Touch, but there's absolutely no discover-ability. So you're either left trying to 3D Touch everything to see what works, or actively researching 3D Touch tricks.

As phone gestures become more popular, they'll have the same issue.

This is a huge problem with phone interfaces in general. There's a big push to make them "clean" by removing obvious widgets and basically hoping the user guesses correctly that they need a horizontal half screen swipe to bring up the search bar or tap and hold on an item to bring up options. You're basically just jabbing at the thing until it does what you want. Eventually people figure out various developer's favorite tricks and try them first and it isn't quite so bad, but for new users smartphone interfaces can be quite daunting.

Seriously, watch someone on a new iPhone and it's just painful.

Oh, I created this contact for fun, now how do I delete it. Tap it? Nope. Tap and hold? Nope. Double tap? Nope. Is there a menu somewhere? Nope. Maybe I slide it over? Nope, that brings me back to the previous page. Maybe I pinch? Nope. Guess I'll pull up the help, oh there isn't any. Off to Google then. Oh, I have to slide it over from the middle, not from the edge.

What's really sad is that this has come around multiple times. I remember hearing about intelligent agents coming anytime to MSN Messenger or whatever it was called at the time back in the early to mid 2000s. And people have had this delusion since ELIZA that natural language interfaces are just on the cusp. A good demo is very convincing, but reality creeps in as soon as you use these things for more than a few rote interactions. The only real innovation of the latest generation of natural language interfaces is their ability to somewhat reliably understand the actual words you use. But even that is highly context dependent and limited to straightforward constructions. And it's all built on just having huge massive datasets against which to compare what's being said. But "natural" language doesn't depend on having past analogues. "Natural" language is constantly finding new ways to say things. And I've not seen any evidence we're any closer to that now than we were in 1966.

I find voice interfaces absolutely infuriating to use! I invariably have to put on an American or English accent in order to get them to understand anything I say, and even then it takes several attempts.

I’m mostly RP English and I usually have to put on a US accent to get anywhere.

In other words: they were never a thing. They were a media-driven and fad-investor-driven hype wave. They never should have been a thing. Good riddance.

Very interesting point, I never thought about why I hate voice interfaces like that so much.

The tipping point for me was when the AT&T small business line I used to use changed to a voice interface and included fake keyboard taping sounds after each interaction. That just felt so damn insulting.

Lately I just say ridiculous shit with these interfaces to see what happens.

A few days ago I was using one for Delta that couldn't tell the difference between "Yeah" and "Yes". Sigh.

That typing sound is to ensure that you are aware the call hasn’t disconnected. With just silence, users feel like they have been disconnected.

Doesn't make it any less condescending. Replace it with some quiet white noise or something...

I'd prefer randomized 'hard disk seeking' noises; not the click of death, the sort of soft muted chirping you used to get from very large and slow magnetic media as you actually heard the heads seek back and forth.

In an alternate pinch, licence some item get sounds from vidoegames and do A B testing on customer satisfaction.

Interestingly, before making this change the line did use a simple "enter account your number" prompt that was followed by a consistent combination of little clicking sounds that seemed to indicate something was happening. I found that much more pleasant than fake key taping.

They remind me a lot of the user experience of text adventures that weren't very thoroughly playtested.

Except that with text adventures I was willing to overlook an obtuse parser if I was enjoying the game. I never call my bank just for the fun of it.

Chatbots proposed to solve a problem that current technology is bad at: understanding natural language. Very few experts claimed that algorithms could master the combinatorics of natural language beyond a few very narrow domains. On top of the technical risk, the voice and chat UX does not give a lot of visibility to users, as this post points out. What happened was: algorithmic advances in other areas lead to analogous reasoning by non-experts whose self-promotion aligned with the media's need for something new, big and understandable. And then it failed.

The irony, of course, is that research is making strides in NLU, it's just too late for the last wave of chatbots. Here are two recent papers from DeepMind:

Learning to Follow Language Instructions with Adversarial Reward Induction https://arxiv.org/abs/1806.01946

Relational inductive biases, deep learning, and graph networks https://arxiv.org/abs/1806.01261

I don't want to talk to it like a human. The main advantage is that you can just say "temperature outside" or "turn light off". And I expect short answers too, not the Google/Amazon boring long sentence shit.

These chat and voice interfaces are basically the public's version of a command line interface. It has the same flaws and virtues. The main difference is marketing.

Of the bots that are marketed to be more human with lots of machine learning. From my experience, they feel no more better than the original ELIZA (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ELIZA) despite the leap in tech.

I think voice is greatly underrated but that it will be the next generations (our kids) will use them without feeling weirded out.

When I look how my kids interact with Google home it's becomes fairly obvious to me that to them this is completely natural. Google Home is almost like a pet to them not just a tool.

We are finally at a stage where voice recognition starts to become powerful enough to understand nuances now the next question is what to connect them to. One thing that I really like is that it allow us to retrieve information without having to look at a screen. It feels like having a 5th person at the table.

At First Principle, we built a little a voice app that allows you to ask Google Analytics or Salesforce for data (and potentially whatever you want to connect with) for meetings so we can ask instead of having to look up. It becomes a natural part of the conversation and everyone have access to the data.

That's where I think it will first make an impact. In meetings with relevant data.

It's a funny coincidence. I've just gotten off a phone with a bank officer about a simple question "Is my card there yet?". It took 29 minutes, including a few minutes at the beginning talking to a bot before getting to a human. I'm being unfair and emotional, but right now I'm not sure if humans are really better.

I was trying to get in contact with my bank to allow a large transaction through that they were blocking. Was impossible to talk to a real human, super frustrating. I finally decided to say I wanted to "open a new account"; was immediately connected to a human that helped me from there.

Depends. As the article states, the hybrid approach is becoming more common. This gives users the ability to use various applications from facebook messenger, and the UI capabilities of messenger is pretty much good enough to achieve anything.

Oh and this comes along with a modern website that can execute all those use cases too.

But then you throw in the natural language, enabling users to write complex queries in English. That and great funded teams focussing on niches.

My experiences with bots are becoming outstandingly good.

That's definitely a problem, but it seems like the promise is great enough to where we'll figure out a solution to that eventually.

Humans are bad interfaces too. That’s why we have computers. People only like humans because they are also human. Nobody will miss the long lines at McD, but they might miss the smile. If a robot smiles at me, I won’t be happy, I’ll be scared.

Would not say the Google one is shitty. We started with an echo and it did require more rigid language but the Google home is pretty good.

Not perfect but good enough that it provides value.

I now use voice a lot because of the quality with Google tech.

Oddly, my problem with Google is that it's too flexible. Most of the time, it understands me, and that's great. But when Alexa doesn't understand, there's usually an error. When Google doesn't, it seems to call people, cancel navigation, and do all sorts of loony things I didn't ask for.

80% success and 20% no action might be usable for an assistant, but adding in 5% random behavior makes it drastically worse than useless.

this. I feel like such an idiot when I tell Google to save a reminder in public.

This, this, this!

I always found the chatbot idea odd, it felt like a step backwards in terms of interaction. We started out with very basic input methods to computers, like punch cards. Then we moved onto a command line interface where you could type in words. Then we eventually got GUIs, graphics, websites, all sorts of complex and nuanced ways to interact with a computer.

To go back to interfacing with a program using written language seemed like an odd step. It's never been the most efficient way of doing something, and it requires very advanced technology to accurately understand what people are trying to say, in whatever slang, shorthand, or bad spelling/grammar they use.

Besides, it's not really dead, the tech just moved to "voice assistants" rather than "chatbots" - really just spoken word rather than written word. And I'm not convinced that's the "revolution" most people are expecting either. I'll stick to clicking buttons and typing things into my terminal.

Yes, it kind of reminds me of those old text adventures where you had to guess what the computer would understand

>get sword

I don't know what "sword" is.

The awful thing is that the old Infocom parser was better at figuring out what you are saying than many of these sexy new NLP systems...

Yes. There is a reason why we don't have text based adventures anymore. Because we can have new ones with beautiful graphics and interfaces.

The human-machine communication issues are the same in both cases. When a video game doesn't understand what you're trying to do, nothing would happen or you get a negative, non-specific feedback. You think it is better because you get distracted by the colors, lights and sounds but the communication channel is as narrow, if not narrower actually.

By the way, what OP says may be true of a game like Dunnet. I don't know if it is no more maintained or if it is kept that way because nostalgia, but more recent text-based games (that is, one that could have been programmed by your father instead of your grandfather) do way better than this. Just try some popular MUD (the MMO version of text adventures), I'm sure you'll be surprised.

The parser in text adventures got really, REALLY advanced.

Some of the current interactive fiction (as the genre is now called) would surprise you.

Have any recommendations?

The best place to look for cool and innovative (and free!) IF games is the Interactive Fiction Competition [0].

Anything by Andrew Plotkin [1] (aka Zarf) is guaranteed to be interesting. Other indie authors of renown to look for are Emily Short and Adam Cadre. But also look for new authors! Mind you, modern IF focuses less in puzzles and more in narrative or exploring the boundaries of the medium.

One of my personal favorites is "Spider and Web" by Zarf, because I love its Cold War-esque setting. Mind you, it can be difficult! The best IF games also explore the console interface itself, such as in "Fail Safe".

An example of a particularly innovative game is "Rematch" [2]: it's a single move game (i.e. you win or fail in a single input, which can be quite complicated and shows off what modern parsers can do). It's sort of a "Groundhog Day" where you must prevent a disaster in a single move, and if you lose you replay it again, and again, and again, till you get it right.

Many of these games can be played in a browser, without installing anything.


[0] https://ifcomp.org/

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Plotkin

[2] http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=22oqimzgf8snv002

For anyone else interested, I'll save you five minutes:

        sudo apt-get install gargoyle-free;
        wget http://mirror.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/tads/Rematch.gam;
        gargoyle Rematch.gam

Thanks so much!

Zork is one of the first games in this genre and it's surprisingly good at parsing commands.

You can play it at https://classicreload.com/zork-i.html or http://textadventures.co.uk/games/view/5zyoqrsugeopel3ffhz_v...


The Infocom games were actually after a lot of earlier games like Colossal Cave (aka "Adventure") and the Scott Adams (not the Dilbert guy) adventures. As such, their parser was actually pretty advanced compared to the 1970s games and understood whole sentences rather than the traditional two words.

Worse even: it forces you to choose between a natural feeling conversation and a useful conversation.

There is only so much input you can give and subsequently evaluate if you show a GUI with 3 buttons.

Now if you restrict the chat or voice input to 3 options than the interface feels unnatural, annoying even.

> It's never been the most efficient way of doing something, and it requires very advanced technology to accurately understand what people are trying to say

It seems like a lot of times when people talk about chatbots, they really mean these phone trees in text form, in which case I would agree with your sentiment.

However, be cautious in conflating chatbots with CLIs. I would say a CLI is not (always) an intuitive interface, but for a lot of problems, they are quite efficient.

The CLI style chatbots tend to be much better since they are basically CLIs in an easily accessible location (e.g. in an app on your phone).

CLIs are great for executing known actions. GUIs are for discovering what you can do.

That's a great way of putting it. Also, GUIs attempt to use human natural reasoning (about objects, space, movement, etc.) and have some kinesthetic components (the mouse, pointing, dragging).

…You've never seen a man page?

To me it was a way for engineers to make interfaces without having to worry about any are design. An engineer-turned-marketing-person would call it "CLI 2.0". The problem was the non-designers still don't know UX at all and natural language is hard so you end up with a sub par, poorly design interface that doesn't understand you.

I keep seeing references to design/UX, and IMO they are way off the mark. The problem is far more fundamental than that. If the only problem were design/UX, then proper chatbots would've taken off by now.

Understanding natural language is much more than just a design problem. It's a grand challenge and core subfield of Computer Science. It's the original Turing Test.

It's interesting to think about. In some ways GUIs are more primitive than text interfaces. The scathing characterization of GUI as "caveman's point and grunt interface" isn't entirely wrong. But at the same time, chat bots are spoken word. Text is a later invention, which was created for a reason. It has much higher information density, allows you to look at multiple tings at the same time and skip irrelevant detail, etc.

My pet theory is that there are a bunch of investors somewhere salivating at the thought of dominating a market for selling products to baby-boomers who are becoming impaired with age.

The biggest manifestation of this is the self-driving car hype for when grandpa can't legally/safely drive himself, however voice-assistants also fit that mold: Something to sell to grandpa when they don't want to learn/buy a new thing and his eyesight is bad and arthritis makes typing hurt.

Whenever a company's phone is answered by an AI, it never does what I ask it to do.

At that point I just push 0 and repeat "speak to a human."

Why, oh why, would any rational person think that this kind of technology was about to suddenly take over everything?

This is a typical example of groupthink delusions.

Unintelligible grunting works too. After a few "I'm sorry, I didn't get that" it always transfers me to a human.

The most annoying part of the experience to me is the menu items are always ~25 things I can trivially do on the website. No, I'm not calling to check my balance, pay a balance, update payment information, etc. I'm calling because your website specifically said that function isn't available online and I need to speak to a representative.

Also annoying is never knowing how deep the menu tree is. I have to write down (or hold my fingers out) what the best option/number at the time, because its likely to change as the resolution of options refines.

Including circular paths in phone menus ought to be some kind of professional misconduct, at least when they're not invoked by "go back" or "start again". There's nothing quite like getting seven levels in and discovering you swapped trees somewhere and are back where you started.

I usually go with loud noises or swearing. That gets me through to a real person. To make up for it, I always say "please" and "thank you" to Siri when im at home.

My guess is that most people call for stuff that's easily doable in the website, but they can't or won't use it

My father in law, who at 71 is fairly tech savvy, still defaults to calling when he needs help with something. He's always saying "I was on the phone with Apple for 3 hours yesterday" or "I was on the phone with Xfinity all day yesterday."

I think if you're from a certain era, you just pick up the phone first and want to talk to somebody, even if it might be pretty easy to find what you're looking for online.

Must depend on eras, yes, because personally I avoid using the phone at all costs. I'd rather take my eyes out with a spindle gouge than talk to someone over the damn phone

That often depends on your definition of easy – most large companies have poorly designed or buggy websites, lousy account management, etc. The problem is that the phone acts as a safety valve for those problems but when management sees the cost they react by trying to have fewer humans answering the phone rather than getting serious about UX.

my guess is that this is not the case, but it's still worth it to handle any situation they can with a robot, or as a consolation, an impatient customer.

In my experience, cursing loudly will get a human on the phone pretty quickly.

Exactly. Interacting with a chatbot had no better features than a menu system, but you had to guess what the menus were. A crazy idea.

> ...no better features than a menu system, but you had to guess what the menus were.

This is also true for CLI interfaces. It illustrates the popularity of GUIs - much to the dismay of CLI enthusiasts everywhere.

Edit: Yes, a -help or "help" command can be used to list the menu. But then this command has to be known beforehand. What if a clever designer decides to use -assist or "assistance" instead?

CLIs, though, serve a different market. I put them in the 'professional' box, alongside Autocad and such; yes, these tools are built with the assumption that the people using them have experience using them.

IVR, is supposed to be 'intuitive' or 'natural' or however one's preferred marketing dialect describes it. The assumption is usually flipped - that tools are supposed to assist those ignorant of their use[1].

It has been a long time since normal users have been expected to use a CLI. If you're looking at one, you choose to. This is not at all true of IVR/Sirlextana.

[1] Of course, they don't serve the caller, they serve the robot's owner, so interests are only aligned to the extent the robot efficiently helps the caller with their goal, which adds an additional layer of opportunity for frustration.

Note that mobile GUIs have often re-invented the "undiscoverable" interface, where things like swipe or long-press do things but it's not obvious where you can safely do them.

I wonder if this app has a drawer.

swipes to the right

> Message archived.

No wtf.


Guess it doesn't.

You need to swipe from the left edge to Open drawer, but swipe to the right edge to Discard. Totally different operations, obviously.

With CLI, you usually can type help or add a -h to the command or something like that and you'll be presented with options and examples.

You really don't have this option with voice. On the other hand, when I visited my mother I was surprised that she figured out that Google Assistant can provide her with nutrition information. She would have never figured out by herself on a CLI or menu because it's very intimidating.

This somewhat contradicts my previous comment about how much I dislike voice interfaces but they probably have some strengths.

> With CLI, you usually can type help or add a -h to the command or something like that and you'll be presented with options and examples

And you get to enjoy fumbling around trying to guess whether this particular program's magic incantation to summon help is "help", "-h", "--help", "?", "/?"...

It's definitely not ideal, no wonder why GUI is so successful.

Most chat bots respond to ‘help’ with a list of commands.

In my experience, these "commands" are also quite vague. Instead of expecting the "help", they should just put (x) and show the menu where I can click on things and be done with it.

On voice interface, your best chanse is to connect to an actual intelligent being as soon as possible because getting the options is a frustration by it's own.

My experience is that they tend to repeat their intro dialogue, which is often something like "tell me a few words about why you're calling, for instance you could say 'upgrade account' or 'billing issue'". Unlike keypress phone trees, they virtually never enumerate all the options.

If I'm saying 'help' it means I've tried that and failed, so it's not clear what the benefit is.

At least with a cli you can usually invoke help and visually scan the text for what you want. With audio chatbots, listening to a list of options quickly becomes tedious.

As a tech oriented site we're nearly all accustomed to unix/unix-inspired general purpose CLIs. However that's not all that exists. There exist more specialized systems, such as those designed to be used over teletype machines, that present the user with a pre-defined menu prompt at each step in the interaction. However unlike with voice-oriented systems, the user can sit there and read the entire list of options for as long as they'd like. You connect, and a menu prints out. You press a key to make a selection and a new menu prints out, or the system prompts you to enter a different sort of data.

Think back to the earliest programming courses people take:

    What's your first name: Jack
    What's your last name: Ch
    Hello Jack Ch!

The point of a CLI is to be able to write programs to handle complicated interactions between applications with ease, and by default. A gui doesn't have a pipe.

Not to be too curmudgeonly but you don't have to guess, almost all those CLI interfaces have a manual and a --help function. You can't ask a chatbot what its options are.

Ok, so...

Linux Newbie:

"I need to find out how much space I have left on this machine."

  > freespace
  bash: freespace: command not found
  > diskspace
  bash: diskspace: command not found
  > disk info
  bash: disk: command not found
  > diskinfo
  bash: diskinfo: command not found
  > man disk space
  No manual entry for disk
  No manual entry for space
  > help disk space
  bash: help: no help topics match `space'.  Try `help help' or `man -k space' or `info space'.
(looks it up on the internet)

  > df /dev/sda1
  Filesystem     1K-blocks    Used Available Use% Mounted on
  /dev/sda1       19478160 1370768  17094912   8% /
... AND that's why GUIs are preferred by most non-technical computer users.

EDIT: Maybe I should have said 'CLI Newbie' - I am in no-way singling out Linux here.

    $ apropos space
    CORE (3perl)         - Namespace for Perl's core routines
    arpd (8)             - userspace arp daemon.
    CMSG_SPACE (3)       - access ancillary data
    CUDA_ERROR_INVALID_ADDRESS_SPACE (3) - (unknown subject)
    cudaErrorInvalidAddressSpace (3) - (unknown subject)
    df (1)               - report file system disk space usage

Thank you, you just re-enforced my point; I've been using Linux seriously for about a year now, and I didn't know about 'apropos'. Bash never mentioned it whenever I got stuck, and my learning travels on the internet has never referenced it.

Hah, I've been using Unix-based OSes in a professional capacity for over 15 years and I've never heard of apropos. :)

There is also `man -k`. -k of course is short for "apropos". It's all very logical and intuitive.

(Seriously though, reading the manpage for man is where I first learned about apropos.)

Honestly google is a better tool unless you already kind of know what you're looking for.

Google "linux how much space on drive" and the first hit tells you exactly what you need.

Another question someone might ask is "how do I change my password". Google for "linux change password" and there is a special help box right at the top of the search results.

apropos password and you get this enormous list:

  apg (1)              - generates several random passwords
  chage (1)            - change user password expiry information
  chgpasswd (8)        - update group passwords in batch mode
  chpasswd (8)         - update passwords in batch mode
  cpgr (8)             - copy with locking the given file to the password or gr...
  cppw (8)             - copy with locking the given file to the password or gr...
  cracklib-check (8)   - Check passwords using libcrack2
  create-cracklib-dict (8) - Check passwords using libcrack2
  crypt (3)            - password and data encryption
  crypt_r (3)          - password and data encryption
  des_read_2passwords (3ssl) - Compatibility user interface functions
  des_read_password (3ssl) - Compatibility user interface functions
  doveadm-pw (1)       - Dovecot's password hash generator
  endpwent (3)         - get password file entry
  endspent (3)         - get shadow password file entry
  EVP_BytesToKey (3ssl) - password based encryption routine
  expiry (1)           - check and enforce password expiration policy
  fgetpwent (3)        - get password file entry
  fgetspent (3)        - get shadow password file entry
  fgetspent_r (3)      - get shadow password file entry
  getpass (3)          - get a password
  getpw (3)            - reconstruct password line entry
  getpwent (3)         - get password file entry
  getpwnam (3)         - get password file entry
  getpwnam_r (3)       - get password file entry
  getpwuid (3)         - get password file entry
  getpwuid_r (3)       - get password file entry
  getspent (3)         - get shadow password file entry
  getspent_r (3)       - get shadow password file entry
  getspnam (3)         - get shadow password file entry
  getspnam_r (3)       - get shadow password file entry
  git-credential-cache (1) - Helper to temporarily store passwords in memory
  gitcredentials (7)   - providing usernames and passwords to Git
  grpconv (8)          - convert to and from shadow passwords and groups
  grpunconv (8)        - convert to and from shadow passwords and groups
  grub-mkpasswd-pbkdf2 (1) - generate hashed password for GRUB
  lckpwdf (3)          - get shadow password file entry
  login.defs (5)       - shadow password suite configuration
  lppasswd (1)         - add, change, or delete digest passwords.
  Net::LDAP::Control::PasswordPolicy (3pm) - LDAPv3 Password Policy control object
  Net::LDAP::Extension::SetPassword (3pm) - LDAPv3 Modify Password extension ob...
  pam_pwhistory (8)    - PAM module to remember last passwords
  pam_unix (8)         - Module for traditional password authentication
  passwd (1)           - change user password
  passwd (1ssl)        - compute password hashes
  passwd (5)           - the password file
  passwd2des (3)       - RFS password encryption
  putpwent (3)         - write a password file entry
  putspent (3)         - get shadow password file entry
  pwck (8)             - verify integrity of password files
  pwconv (8)           - convert to and from shadow passwords and groups
  pwunconv (8)         - convert to and from shadow passwords and groups
  seahorse (1)         - Passwords and Keys
  setpwent (3)         - get password file entry
  setspent (3)         - get shadow password file entry
  sgetspent (3)        - get shadow password file entry
  sgetspent_r (3)      - get shadow password file entry
  shadow (5)           - shadowed password file
  shadowconfig (8)     - toggle shadow passwords on and off
  smbpasswd (5)        - The Samba encrypted password file
  smbpasswd (8)        - change a user's SMB password
  ulckpwdf (3)         - get shadow password file entry
  unix_chkpwd (8)      - Helper binary that verifies the password of the curren...
  unix_update (8)      - Helper binary that updates the password of a given user
  vigr (8)             - edit the password, group, shadow-password or shadow-gr...
  vipw (8)             - edit the password, group, shadow-password or shadow-gr...
  xcrypt (3)           - RFS password encryption
  xdecrypt (3)         - RFS password encryption
  xencrypt (3)         - RFS password encryption
If you didn't already know you were looking for the "passwd" command it might be hard to pick it out of the list.

    $ apropos -a change password
    chage (1)            - change user password expiry information
    kpasswd (1)          - change a user's Kerberos password
    passwd (1)           - change user password
    PKCS12_newpass (3ssl) - change the password of a PKCS12 structure

    $ apropos -a space disk
    df (1)               - report file system disk space usage
    df (1p)              - report free disk space

The fact that the search defaults to "or" instead of "and" is a design flaw IMHO. By far the most common case when you have multiple arguments is that you want the item that contains all of the keywords.

Filter it by section...

man -k -S1 password

Nothing says user friendly like making the user read the manual for his manual so he can memorize the nine different categories (plus perhaps custom categores like TCLs) to get the manual page he wants.

I use man and apropos all of the time, but I have no illusion that they're new user friendly. They're amazing when you just need to look up some options or get the syntax for a system call, but if you've not assimilated the Unix way of thinking they're quite obtuse.

This example would be a lot less ironically-unhelpful if 'apropos' were renamed 'help'.

The name “help” is, unfortunately, already taken by a shell built-in command. But one could argue that this help command should be very much more helpful than the restricted functionality it currently implements.

I think people would complain that apropos doesn't do its job if it were named help.

Apropos would be a powerful part of a "help" command, but in 50 years nobody has ever written a help command that gained enough traction to be included in the standard toolchain.

Request granted!

Apropos doesn’t do it’s job because it isn’t named — or integrated with — help.

I feel like the real problem here is that bash is still the default and bash defaults/UX are straight up awful. The fish shell gets a lot of things right in regards to a sane out of the box experience, though there are a few things it could do better.

The tools themselves leave a lot to be desired from a UX experience too. Things like nonsense names, bad defaults and/or no inherent intelligence in the program, means you have to specify numerous options manually for things that should be easy to automate.

The whole experience would benefit greatly by telling people about things like man/apropros on first startup and other one time tutorials.

There are some days where I feel tempted to write small helper scripts whose sole purpose would be to rename/reorient the default experience/flags of various CLI apps, so that it is not a jumbled mess full of historical accidents that can no longer be changed.

Windows Newbie:

“I need to find out how much space I have left on this machine.”

Now what?

"Oh there's a folder icon" (click)

"Oh there's an entry called My PC" (click)

"Aha, there's my disk and little bar showing the free space"

It's two clicks if you have your wits about you, maybe a few more if its not that obvious.

I don't know why you singled out Windows. It's just as easy in Gnome or KDE etc - the point here is that CLIs can never be as intuitive as GUIs. As the original article said - Humans are very visual people. Seeing things in a visual space is much easier for us.

Further, Windows will pop up a notification that your disk space is running low, and this opens another window with suggestions for different types of files (temporary update files, temporary internet files, recycle bin, installed programs) that can be removed to release space.

Ubuntu does warnings for low disk space too.

Personally I think the experience is very similar for noobs.

Press windows key, type "space". First item is "Storage". Press enter or click it, you see a prominent progress bar like thing and text: "300GB used, 164GB free".

Click on My PC. The answer is there on the disk icons.

But then again, why wouldn't the Linux guy search google in the first place?

Or if it is a total newbie, look for the disk icons, the information is there as well.

> You can't ask a chatbot what its options are.

then it's a really bad one.

And I think most of us are in the same camp there. Usually, when I am calling a business, it's because of some kind of unusual or complicated inquiry or special situation because I generally don't want to call if I can do or get what I need by logging in online to the company's site to manage my account or do whatever I need there as that's often the fastest. But the online account management only does so much so when a weird edge case regarding doing business with the company arises, I will call, and in those situations the AI/voice prompts never handle the situation I am calling about such that I need a human agent/rep every single time. I wouldn't be calling for something simple!

I do think that eventually these technologies will supersede trivial human transactions like customer service calls. The problem is that no one seems to understand the sheer difficulty of the problem. You have to create a machine that can realistically speak to a person, with all the nuance that entails. We're far further from that than AI marketers would lead us to believe.

I'd take issue that it needs to realistically speak like a person.

In a sense, the Google search bar is a type of chatbot, but we don't converse with it in grammatical English. It doesn't present as a human, so there's no uncanny valley effect. What gets typed into Google is a sort of lingua franca that we've all collectively learned through 20+ years of increasingly capable search engines. What we need is that level of lingua franca, but for a full, state-change-driving conversation, instead of just a one-step search.

It's not the machines that need to learn, it's us.

Ah, good point. I remember working with some chatbot tech a few years ago, and came to the conclusion that realistic speaking is not just unnecessary, it's directly undesirable.

The uncanny valley effect, in my opinion, is due to the fact that 99% of our speech and writing is not dictated by content or necessity, but instead driven by social tendencies.

If I ask my friend to lunch, I'll text him "lunch?". But if I ask my boss out to lunch, it's going to be something like a paragraph, explaining what I'd like to cover during the lunch.

Most of what we say is a kind of dance to ensure other people that we aren't stupid. We don't need this formality when dealing with non-human entities, so speaking in grammatical language when chatting with a bot feels incredibly stupid.

Except now Google are trying to make their search engine respond to more natural language and so the established search methods like "domain keyword specific-keyword" are often less successful than trying to think of a more human, but not complex, question that might be commonly asked.

Particularly, of course, they no longer care whether results include your required words.

One has to learn and re-learn how to get the best from these systems.

Aside, I'm impressed with Alexa on FireTV, but until it enters data in to the apps, and searches within media libraries, it remains a novelty.

I strongly disagree that customer service calls are trivial.

Given all the recordings I hear when I call a customer service line, I suspect that most customer service calls are from the kind of people who can't help themselves.

I think customer service departments find them boring and want to automate them away.

I didn't mean trivial in the sense you mean. I mean trivial in that, in comparison to other human interactions, the variables are more limited and therefore lower hanging fruit for automation.

I agree but really only to a certain extent. Coaxing out of humans what thier actual issue is, is more of an art than a science. IMHO and from antecdotal experience this problem seems easier to automate than I think it really is which is why I don’t personally think anyone is crushing it in this space.

Exactly. I did tech support in college, and there's often a huge gulf between what people ask for and what they want. Especially with the rise of the web and apps, we've shifted plenty of power into the hands of users and customers already.

Voice-based systems currently combine all of the limitations of human conversation (e.g., low bandwidth, strongly linear, possibilities hidden) with all the limitations of computers (e.g., not very bright, highly literal, inflexible).

I think the main reason they're so popular for support is that people are bad at accounting. If I install an IVR system, I see that calls to human agents go down, saving me easily measured cash money. But I probably haven't measured the time and cognitive load burden shifted to customers, or the value lost by suboptimal use of whatever they're supporting.

Particularly that last point stands out to me. Lots of automations I’ve seen assume the customer knows the problem. Which they may not they are contacting with a symptom to which they may not know the problem. They aren’t necessarily going to say billing issue/expired credit card when contacting about why they can’t access thier premium features on your app anymore.

But this aligns precisely with what I said. I didn't say it was easy. In fact, I said that the industry vastly underestimates the technical challenge of the problem. My point in mentioning customer service calls was that when we finally are able to generate viable AI (which seems like a long ways out), short and limited interactions will likely be the first inroads. I stand by what I originally said, which was that in comparison to all other human interactions, these are likely the lowest hanging fruit. Not that they are, in absolute terms, low hanging fruit.

Probably, a good AI could get me to the proper representative or solve my problem a lot faster than a tree menu... But I don't think we're really close to doing that.

If the flowchart is so good, they should expose it in clickable form online.

The chatbot graph is secret because its purpose is to discourage certain actions, by making you sit through a humiliating hold period with brain-melting repeated announcements, until you reach a person who has strict orders to not be reasonable.

They already have those online, in the form of FAQs and knowledge bases that don't tell you anything new.

It's doubly-painful when some of these force you to speak out digits (like an account number) instead of entering them.

In my experience they always accept dialled numbers.

Oh, if only that had been my experience, I'd probably hate these things a lot less.


It's not as though the tones are harder to recognise!

"Why don't you just tell me the name of the movie you've just selected?"

But seriously, it's the same reason so many sites won't accept a credit card number with spaces in it. Someone writing from scratch the same thing that's been written a thousand times, but only thinking about the way they would use it (or the way they were told others would use it).

As someone for whom English is not the native language it's the worst. It's incredibly humiliating when the stupid machine can't understand what I am saying - and 100% of the ones I encountered fail to understand my surname and I have to repeat it 5 times like an idiot before it finally gives up and just tries something else as an authentication method.

> Why, oh why, would any rational person think that this kind of technology was about to suddenly take over everything?

Because the boardroom got a huge boner when realizing they can do major cost cutting in the human department.

> At that point I just push 0 and repeat "speak to a human."

Spamming the # key repeatedly seems to work pretty well for this too.

The issue is that an AI is limited to what the user interface programmed by the company behind it provides. The issue is not the AI algorithms and understanding but rather extremely substandard automation behind it.

Of course one can say that this is not an exclusively AI issue. Call centers, especially offshore ones, have the same problem.

We can translate spoken words to text strings pretty reliably. AFAIK, we can do this locally without much processing power, but I may be mistaken. From the point that spoken words become strings, chatbots and voicebots are effectively the same.

Those strings are piped through a Switch statement of static responses, or fall out into the Default response. This was the situation in 2013 when I created a speech bot in Powershell, and it sounds like the state of the art here hasn't progressed far.

What's needed is logic to dynamically build the Switch statements, or otherwise better parse human entry and build responses. There has been much work on a few different fronts, but I'm not aware of any which were wildly successful.

>We can translate spoken words to text strings pretty reliably. AFAIK, we can do this locally without much processing power, but I may be mistaken.

Cloud services backed by big data sets tend to be better although I admit I haven't tried a local copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking for a long time.

In any case, at least assuming fairly mainstream American/English accents, the voice recognition isn't really the problem any longer. Sophisticated NLP and responses are. We're a long way from virtual assistants that can do anything sophisticated.

The dirty secret is that there are thousands of humans listening in on these phone bot conversations. They have the power to press a button to override the endless loop.

Amazing what they are spending to keep up illusions.

I always thought it was a way to buffer calls so there is another interactive queue to delay getting to the main customer service queue.

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