Forget the Turing Test. The Key to Conversational Engagement Might Be Trampoline Moments

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In 2016, voice-based interfaces exploded into the imagination of the startup community as a potential new consumer platform. Amazon deserves much of the credit for this radical shift, as the Amazon Echo seemed to jump the chasm from early adopters to a more mainstream market. Of course, voice has been a hot topic now for years, as Apple & Google both leveraged their ubiquitous mobile platforms to launch Siri & Google Now, and Microsoft & Amazon have demonstrated incredible technical progress with Cortana & Alexa.

Unfortunately, as the excitement around voice shifts into practical execution, there is an uncomfortable consensus growing that there is something amiss with these new conversational platforms. The issue? The engagement numbers just aren’t as strong as expected, or even as strong as engagement numbers for traditional web or app-based interactions. One of the biggest issues? Retention.

I believe the issue is real, and will be a persistent problem for developers and designers looking to create the next generation of conversational interfaces. But if I had to give one piece of advice to those creative professionals, it would be this:

Deliver trampoline moments.

Lessons from PullString

Over the past four years, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to be an investor and board member at PullString, headed by Oren Jacob, the former CTO of Pixar. This company set out with the audacious goal of reimagining conversational interfaces designed for entertainment, rather than for utility. With a bit of that unique Pixar magic, this incredible team believed in two things that even to this day seem quite at odds with the conventional wisdom of Silicon Valley:

  1. Conversation is a fundamentally new medium for creative content, and would expand beyond the pure utility of a search engine interface to a platform for engagement & entertainment.
  2. A platform to deliver truly engaging entertainment through conversation would require the combination of both technical and creative contributors to the content creation process.

Over the past few years, Pullstring has delivered a wide range of industry-firsts for voice-based engagement for a wide variety of audiences, ranging from young children to adults. Large brands, like Activision’s Call of Duty, Disney’s Marvel and Mattel’s Barbie trust Pullstring’s platform because of its unparalleled scalability and its unique ability to integrate content from creative professionals with expertise in sound, voice, character and dialogue. Even Amazon counts on Pullstring when they want to deliver high quality conversational content.

However, one of the key insights about conversational engagement came early on, during one of their rigorous rounds of user testing & prototyping. After session after session with children, who would use, but not deeply engage with a conversational application, they found it. A trampoline moment.  

Child: Hey
Pullstring: Quick! Name three things you like that are outside.
Child: I think please I’m Chris taxes and jumping on trampolines
Pullstring: W-w-w-w-w-w-wait…you mean like, a real trampoline?
Child: Yeah
Pullstring: Do you think I could go on it sometime? I’ve been using your bed up until now and I think the springs are worn out…
Child: Are you really able to
Pullstring: My oh my, what a day I’ve had…It was so strenuous I can barely remember what I did…Ellington? What have we got in the log?
Pullstring: Right. We sat on the bed. Ellington needed a little rest time from our usual forays.

A couple things you’ll note here:

  1. Speech recognition for children’s speech was very imprecise at the time. The text is not actually what the child said, but the text fed back from the best speech recognition engine of that time.
  2. The child’s willingness to “believe” in Winston (the virtual character, with his friend Ellington) changes dramatically when he demonstrates active listening around one of her favorite things, the trampoline.

This session went on not just for a minute, not just ten minutes, but over 30 minutes. The child had clearly decided to engage, and continued to engage, despite a huge number of imperfections in the interaction.

Why? The trampoline moment.

Turing Test or Trampoline Moment?

For decades, the high bar in artificial intelligence has been the Turing Test, invented by Alan Turing in 1950. The test was fairly simple: an evaluator (human) would have a conversation with two entities, one human and one artificial. If the evaluator could not reliably tell the human from the computer, the machine would “pass” the test.

While there are a number of criticisms of the Turing Test, there is no question that it has profoundly affected the way many evaluate machine-generated conversation.

The insight from the trampoline moment was different, and takes more of its heritage from the world of fiction. The question can be reframed not whether or not the consumer believes the character is human, but instead are they willing to suspend their disbelief long enough to immerse themselves in the experience.

Most people don’t believe that Iron Man is real, or that they are witnessing an accurate portrayal of Alexander Hamilton. They know that the actors in their favorite romantic comedy aren’t really in love, and they forgive plot holes and shallow character development. Even highly critical audiences of science fiction often can and will forgive obvious scientific flaws in the technology presented. (Well, not all of them)

The magic is really in the suspension of disbeliefthe willingness to suspend your own critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; the willingness to sacrifice logic for the sake of enjoyment.

Is it really surprising that a critical insight to human engagement might stem from the arts, where creative geniuses have spent thousands of years attempting to engage and entertain notoriously fickle humans?

Focus on Trampoline Moments, not Intelligence

The progress in artificial intelligence, voice recognition and conversational interfaces has been astounding in the past few years. There is no question that these technologies will reshape almost every facet of our economy and daily lives in the coming decade.

That being said, in Silicon Valley, it is sometimes too easy to focus on the hardest technical problem, rather than the one that will bring the consumer the most delight.

The reason Pullstring spends time talking about finding “trampoline moments” is likely the same reason talented product leaders talk about finding “magic moments” in their product experience. If you can connect with your customer emotionally, you will inevitably find that engagement and retention increase.

Trigger their suspension of disbelief. Find your trampoline moments.

The Decade of Gen X Wish Fulfillment

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At 9:54am this morning in California, a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX blasted off the launchpad to deliver 10 new Iridium satellites into orbit. 9 minutes later, the jettisoned first stage of that rocket ship self-navigated back down, landing perfectly and without damage. The dream of self-landing, reusable rockets, abandoned 50 years ago, has become a reality.

If you are a science & technology enthusiast, it is an unbelievable time to be alive.

Everywhere you look, there are signs that all of the science-fiction dreams of the 20th century are rapidly coming to life. Boom Aero is ready to bring economically viable supersonic jets (Mach 2.2) to commercial air travel, and several competitors are now racing to bring their own to market. In just a few years years, Tesla has reshaped the global automative industry by executing on their audacious plan to accelerate the transition to clean energy by proving the market-viability of electric cars. Google has not only brought self-driving cars to the tipping point of commercial viability, but it is sparked a global race to bring them to market by the end of this decade.

Uber is talking about flying cars. Amazon is patenting airship warehouses for drone for commercial delivery, and has delivered ambient voice control to our homes. Facebook is bringing us true virtual reality. Apple is delivering the equivalent of a crystal-in-our-ears to connect to the cloud. Moon Express will land on the moon in 2017.

 

What has changed so dramatically? Why are so many of our collective dreams, many of which predicted over 50 years ago, suddenly tumbling to market in an avalanche of advancement?

I have a simple hypothesis. We are living in a decade of Gen X wish fulfillment.

The Ascendent Economic Power of Gen X

ft_16_04-25_generations2050Poor Gen X. You can’t go ten minutes without seeing some political or economic framing around the political and economic tensions between the Baby Boom generation, the 70 million Americans born between 1946-1965, and the 90 million Millennials, born between 1981-2000. Sure, Gen X got a few TV sitcoms & movies in the 90s, but it was a brief time in the sun before the cultural handoff.

As of 2017, most members of Gen X now range from their late 30s to their early 50s. They have found careers, started families. More importantly, they have hit the economic sweet spot of the US economy. Wealth accumulation is highly correlated with age, and career success is as well. You can see it clearly in the numbers: Gen X is wealth is accelerating rapidly, faster than the Millennial generation, and over a smaller base of people, while Baby Boomers begin their inevitable asset decline as their retire.

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The Influence of Gen X Leadership

Like every generation, Gen X has produced a set of exceptional leaders, and many of them are now concentrated in technology, where the industry rewards founders and executives at a younger age than other industries. Larry Page & Sergey Brin at Google. Elon Musk at Tesla & SpaceX. Travis Kalanick at Uber. Jeff Bezos misses the cut off by a matter of months, but clearly fits the profile as well.

Demographers have always projected the window for Gen X would be hard: Baby Boomers are determined to hold on to power as long as possible, and Millennials have the political strength to force transition more quickly on their terms.

Still, we are clearly in a window of time where a fairly large number of Gen X leaders have accumulated significant economic power.

So what are they doing with that power?

Gen X Wish Fulfillment

Five years ago, Peter Thiel lamented that we were promised spaceships and flying cars, but all we got were 140 characters. The sentiment, in various forms, became common place. Why wasn’t Silicon Valley investing in hard problems?

Not surprisingly, it seems as if the peak of that disenchantment actually coincided with an incredible resurgence in investment in deep technology.

Gen X is, in the aggregate, almost canonically described as cynical and disenchanted. But with the ascendence of science fiction into Hollywood in the 1970s, they grew up seeing the future through the lens of technology. The boom in personal computing, followed by the internet, filled their formative years. True, huge initiatives of the 1970s around space and clean energy faltered and almost expired. But while there were disappointments, like the Space Shuttle, they also saw the end of the Cold War, and the phenomenal growth in the technology industry.

Is it really so surprising that a subset of this generation, in this brief window, has decided to invest its economic power into tackling the problems the previous generations failed to deliver?

Electric cars. Clean Energy. Gene Editing. Space Travel. Drones. Artificial Intelligence. Man-made diamonds. Robots.

Even our comic book movies have become phenomenal, mostly thanks to Jon Favreau.

Dreams transformed into reality.

Can Gen X Inspire?

Make no mistake, Gen X stands on the shoulders of giants. The previous generation gave us the economic and technology platforms to make these dreams become reality. Gen X deserves credit for not giving up on those dreams, and finding innovative ways to push through old barriers and find new solutions.

After winning World War II, the Greatest Generation inspired a whole new generation of scientists and engineers with their audacious efforts in technology in the 1950s & 60s. We may be witnessing a similar era, a decade where the technological achievements of this generation ripple through the children of today, and play out in second half of this century.

So many of the technical dreams I discussed eagerly with friends in high school and college are now actively being delivered to market, just twenty years later. It is an incredibly exciting time to be in technology.

Personally, I hope this generation will not only hand off and even better set of opportunities to the next, but we’ll use this brief window of time to inspire an even younger generation to reach for the stars.

 

Google vs. The Teamsters

Yesterday, Google launched Chromecast, a streaming solution for integrating mobile devices with TV, part of another salvo against Apple.  Google vs. Apple has been the hot story now in Silicon Valley for a couple of years.  Before that, Google vs. Facebook.  Before that, Google vs. Microsoft.  Technology loves narrative, and setting up a battle of titans always gets the crowd worked up.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the next fight Google might be inadvertently setting up, and wondering whether they are ready for it.

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Self-Driving Cars or Self-Driving Trucks

It turns out I’m not the only one who noticed that Google’s incredible push for self-driving cars actually has more likely applications around trucking.  Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal wrote an excellent piece about Catepillar’s experiments using self-driving mining trucks in remote areas of Australia.  It had the provocative headline:

Daddy, What Was a Truck Driver?

This is the first piece in the mainstream media that I’ve seen connecting the dots from self-driving cars to trucking, even with a lightweight reference to the Teamsters at the end.

Ubiquitous, autonomous trucks are “close to inevitable,” says Ted Scott, director of engineering and safety policy for the American Trucking Associations. “We are going to have a driverless truck because there will be money in it,” adds James Barrett, president of 105-rig Road Scholar Transport Inc. in Scranton, Pa.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters haven’t noticed yet, or at least, all searches I performed on their site for keywords like “self driving”, “computer driving”, “automated driving”, or even just “Google” revealed nothing relevant about the topic.  But they will.

Massive Economic Value

The statistics are astonishing.  A few key insights:

  • Approximately 5.7 million Americans are licensed as professional drivers, driving everything from delivery vans to tractor-trailers.
  • Roughly speaking, a full-time driver with benefits will cost $65,000 to $100,000 or more a year.
  •  In 2011, the U.S. trucking industry hauled 67 percent of the total volume of freight transported in the United States. More than 26 million trucks of all classes, including 2.4 million typical Class 8 trucks operated by more than 1.2 million interstate motor carriers. (via American Trucking Association)
  • Currently, there is a shortage of qualified drivers. Estimated at 20,000+ now, growing to over 100,000 in the next few years. (via American Trucking Association)

Let’s see.  We have a staffing problem around an already fairly expensive role that is the backbone of a majority of freight transport in the United States.  That’s just about all the right ingredients for experimentation, development and eventual mass deployment of self-driving trucks.

Rise of the Machines

In 2011, Andy McAfee & Erik Brynjolfsson published the book “Race Against the Machine“, where they describe both the evidence and projection of how computers & artificial intelligence will rapidly displace roles and work previously assumed to be best done by humans.  (Andy’s excellent TED 2013 talk is now online.)

The fact is, self-driving long haul trucking addresses a lot of the issues with using human drivers.  Computers don’t need to sleep.  That alone might double their productivity.  They can remotely be audited and controlled in emergency situations.  They are predictable, and can execute high efficiency coordination (like road trains).  They will no doubt be more fuel efficient, and will likely end up having better safety records than human drivers.

Please don’t get me wrong – I am positive there will be a large number of situations where human drivers will be advantageous.  But it will certainly no longer be 100%, and the situations where self-driving trucks make sense will only expand with time.

Google & Unions

Google has made self-driving cars one of the hallmarks of their new brand, thinking about long term problems and futuristic technology.  This, unfortunately, is one of the risks that goes with brand association around a technology that may be massively disruptive both socially & politically.

Like most technology companies in Silicon Valley, Google is not a union shop.  It has advocated in the past on issues like education reform.  It wouldn’t be hard, politically, to paint Google as either ambivalent or even hostile to organized labor.

Challenges of the Next Decade

The next ten years are likely to look very different for technology than the past ten.  We’re going to start to see large number of jobs previously thought to be safe from computerization be displaced.  It’s at best naive to think that these developments won’t end up politically charged.

Large companies, in particular, are vulnerable to political action, as they are large targets.  Amazon actually may have been the first consumer tech company to stumble onto this issue, with the outcry around the loss of the independent bookstore.  (Interesting, Netflix did not invoke the same reaction to the loss of the video rental store.)  Google, however, has touched an issue that affects millions of jobs, and one that historically has been aggressively organized both socially & politically.  The Teamsters alone have 1.3 million members (as of 2011).

Silicon Valley was late to lobbying and political influence, but this goes beyond influence.  We’re now getting to a level of social impact where companies need to proactively envision and advocate for the future that they are creating.  Google may think they are safe by focusing on the most unlikely first implementation of their vision (self-driving cars), but it is very likely they’ll be associated with the concept of self-driving vehicles.

I’m a huge fan of Google, so maybe I’m just worried we may see a future of news broadcasts with people taking bats to self-driving cars in the Google parking lot.  And I don’t think anyone is ready for that.

Trend Micro Keynote: Innovation & Inspiration

I had the opportunity yesterday to kick off the 2011 Trend Micro Engineering Summit with a keynote on Innovation & Inspiration.  It’s a topic I’m passionate about, and I appreciated the chance to put some key learnings together and present them to a great technology team.

The talk is broken into three sections:

  • Lessons from Distributed Computing about how to think about Distributed Organizations
  • Three types of Risk
  • Hackdays and Cultures of Innovation

I would definitely consider the slides “draft” quality, but worth sharing nonetheless.

Those of you who attended by “Ten Things I Learned About Product at LinkedIn” talk will recognize the Optimus Prime quotes.  What can I say?  I’m a sucker for the Transformers. (I will get those slides posted up here soon.)

Enjoy.