How Cell Phones Become Human

Thursday Dec 27th 2012 by Mike Elgan
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Google and Apple really are building human-like phones that think and even feel.

I watched the future happen right before my eyes on Christmas morning.

My 17-year-old nephew Walton got an iPad for Christmas. I had shown him Google Voice Search previously, so he downloaded the app immediately. For the rest of the day, whenever some question arose, he asked Google on the iPad by speaking out loud in regular language. In nearly every case, he got the answer he was looking for, and pretty fast, too.

The generation older than me got information from computers by programming queries on cards or tape, submitting their "job" to the mainframe priesthood, then coming back later for the answer.

My generation learned as adults to craft Boolean search queries for search engines, which gave us not so much answers as a very long list of guesses. We had to sift through search results and cherry-pick which one of the many returned links might satisfy our curiosity.

Walton's generation is the first for which getting answers from computers won't involve "submitting" anything or slogging through possible answers. They'll simply have a conversation with their phone. They won't type anything. They'll talk. And the phones will simply interact with them or take dictation.

More than that, phones are growing human-like personalities, including the ability to understand and speak natural language--and even empathize.

The technology is interesting enough, but even more interesting is how this will affect the human mind.

The Evolution of Cell Phone Psychology

When mobile phones first became ubiquitous 15 years ago or so, they were objects or machines psychologically separate and distinct from us. They were "tools" that we "used."

As smartphones became popular, got ever smarter and became ever more central to our everyday lives, phones stopped being psychologically separate from us. They became part of us -- serving as prosthetic memory. They also gave us a sixth sense, superhuman abilities, such as the ability to communicate with people far away.

In fact, that's where phones fit into our lives today -- they're part of us. We feel naked and incomplete without them. When we don't have phones in our pockets, we still hear them ring and feel them vibrate, like an amputee still feels his missing leg.

But the evolution of phones will separate them from us again. But this time, instead of being separate "tools" that we use, they'll be "people" that we know.

Rise of the Human-Like Smartphone

The parts of human-like smartphones are being assembled by various companies and universities, but the first companies to distribute them widely are Apple and Google.

Apple, for example, is making huge strides with its Siri personal assistant. Siri is slow and limited, but it represents a great first step toward an interface that lets you talk in natural language, and get answers in a way that resembles personality. Siri jokes around, mixes up various ways to phrase responses and generally simulates human interaction with the user, to some limited degree.

Google is doing amazing work in the development of its Google Now feature in Android Jelly Bean and higher. It is backed by a foundational project called the Google Knowledge Graph. Google Now learns about you, and takes the initiative to suggest and inform. You interact with Google Now by talking, much as you might with Siri.

These two examples will be viewed in hindsight as first steps toward the ubiquitous human-like smartphone, which understands, talks back, learns, grows and shoots the breeze with you like a friend.

Of course, these same capabilities, which use compute power far away in remote data centers, will be available on tablets, laptops and desktop computers. But since voice is the main interface, we’ll usually interact via phone.

Interestingly, the quality that will make our minds buy into the illusion of human-like personality is something that Apple and Google haven't been able to simulate yet: emotion.

When Your Phone Gets Emotional

It's easy for software designers to create speech engines and phrase books that convey various emotions, such as anger, happiness, sadness, elation, and others.

What's hard is applying the right emotion to the right situation. So the research effort around emotional smartphones isn't about conveying emotion, but perceiving them.

The goal is to teach the phone detect the emotion of the user and respond appropriately, just as a friend might.

For example, when the user is upset or frustrated, the phone might simply provide the answer with a minimum of conversation.

However, if the user sounds happy, the phone might be more chatty and suggest things out of the blue.

The software might also learn what to do and what not to do by perceiving the emotions that result from the users interacting with the system.

Engineers at the University of Rochester, for example, are working on gauging emotion based on listening to speech.

The software analyzes the users' voice pitch, loudness and other qualities to determine one of six emotional states, including "sad," "happy," "fearful," "disgusted" and "neutral"— and it does so with 81 percent accuracy, according to researchers.

Once phone interfaces have "empathy engines," then it's a simple matter of varying the qualities of the response to correspond with user’s emotional state.

Of course, a lot of dorky computer science needs to happen before you can cry on your phone's shoulder, as it were.

But the bottom line is that Apple, Google and everybody else will be able to humanize our phones to the point where we will psychologically come to view them as surrogate humans.

And because we're human, we'll treat our phones as "beings." This is the default mode--even for dumb objects that don't have emotions, such as our cars and boats.

But once our phones converse with us, learn about us, suggest things to us and empathize with us, we will come to view those phones as human-like friends and confidants.

The future will be strange and wonderful because our relationship to thinking machines will be transformed.

The current generation of kids won't remember a world in which you can't have a conversation with your phone.

And this future has already begun. Don't believe me? Ask your phone!

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