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  • Saurabh Garg

Making machines human (Part 1) Language.

Recently, while doing a research on ‘smart homes’ I came across a lot of viewpoints on what is smart home. After talking to various experts, engineers, designers and end users, it was evident that as soon as ‘smart’ is prefixed with any word, home in this context, people start imagining screens, touch panels, lights, automatic machines, bots, voice controlled devices and what not. All of a sudden a mood board of a sci-fi movie is painted in front of you — something like ‘TRON’ may be. On the other hand, some people start talking about emotional aspect of machines, virtual personalities, how to make machines more ‘human’, how to make them more witty and humorous like human using AI and big data. Here you can imagine the movies ‘HER’ where the protagonist falls in love with a chatbot. These are two extremes, where does the future lie?

Market today is flooded with smart devices — smart washing machine, smart microwave, smart air conditioner, smart refrigerator, smart TV, smart Door Lock, smart surveillance etc. Every device comes with thousand of preset functions — trying to make it easier for the user to use them. But the truth is that so many choices make them rather difficult to use. Consider a fully automatic washing machine — a screen display, a rotating knob to select preset programs, few touch buttons to select primary and auxiliary functions like wash selection, delay, timer etc. To wash clothes all you need to do is open the lid, put clothes and select the mode you want. Where is the problem? The problem lies not in opening the lid and putting cloths, the problem is in selecting the mode. Mode selection is a multi fold problem. Level 1 — User doesn’t know which mode to select. Level 2 — Even if user know what operation needs to be done, he does not know which modes gives desired operation. Level 3 — Once the mode is decided, he has to know how to select that mode. Level 4 — Despite knowing everything, he might feel limiting as he can not really customize the selected mode. I like to call these function/modes as paradox of choice. User is given 100 features but he doesn’t really understands how to use them. This paradox of choice is interesting from marketing point of view — ‘I sell more features than others’ but it renders the products useless, if not difficult to use. In real life they increase the cognitive load, which is contradictory to the layman definition of machines i.e. ‘a machine is something that decreases human effort’. I was sure that this sounds like a very trivial issue, I was sure that there has to be someone who would have cracked it so I went to a nearby electronics store and fuck! I looked at IFB, Samsung, LG, Hitachi, Bosch, Godrej, Siemens, everyone seemed to have fallen in the same ditch. There is a washing machine which had a mode ‘Monsoon’ — What do I make out of it? Does this say “Clean you highly monsoon dirty spoiled clothes” or does it say “Get your clothes ultra dry so that you can wear them straight as I know you can not dry them in open”? And these are not just washing machines, Microwaves, Refrigerators, TVs, Sound systems, everything smart started to sound stupid all of a sudden.

Today we are trying to make machines human compared to making humans machine since industrial revolution. If we have to understand how to make machines human, it is important to first understand what makes human a human. One thing that makes human a human is language. Human have the ability to communicate and understand any other being using language — signs, sounds, movements, emotions etc; whereas, machines understand only yes and no. For machines to be human, first thing they need to learn is the language we speak.

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