A Good Conversational Interface: Man’s Best Friend

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Recently, I’ve been fostering dogs who were rescued from scary shelters in North Carolina and shipped to New England in search of their new homes. In September, my entire life was taken over by two puppies—one four months old, and one six months old. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a puppy in my life, and it occurred to me that trying to communicate with a puppy is a lot like talking to a subpar conversational interface.




They all get the same blank stares—or nibbles on your fingers or shoelaces—until you actually take the time to train the puppy. Get out some treats and use it to lure the puppy into a sitting position, pair the action with a word, reward, and before you know it, the puppy understands what you’re asking him to do. It takes a lot of patience but eventually you’ll have a well-trained dog able to understand your requests and respond accordingly.

Maybelle, my 11-year-old Australian cattle dog mix who passed away last spring, was a lot more like a well-tuned conversational assistant. Not only was she responsive to all the commands (I hate that word) I’d taught her over the years, but she seemed to learn things I’d never intentionally taught her. In fact, I didn’t even need to speak to get Maybelle to do what I wanted. I’d simply point in the direction I wanted her to go and she’d oblige. I’d nod my head and she’d lay down, picking up on a nonverbal cue I’d apparently been giving her for years.

Don’t we all want voice-activated devices and assistants to be more like a loyal old dog and less like the puppy chewing on your shoes?

Well, it takes a lot of training, and it’s not necessarily something you can do at home with a few treats and the help of some YouTube videos. It’s up to professionals to turn that unwieldy device into a helpful companion. But let’s take that a step further, because it’s not enough for conversational AI to be cute family companions that can play your music or look up trivia. Ultimately, what we really need are the equivalent of service dogs who can help us get our jobs and other important tasks done. In the fall issue of Speech Technology, we’ll explore assistive technology that is stepping up to the plate to help people—but we’ll also talk about what buyers want. (Hint: It’s service-dog-level usefulness.)

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