Internet and the Conversational Interface: History Revisited
We have had no equivalent Promontory Point experience with the
internet, as yet. I'm sure the uniting of the world's continents
via the ARPAnet (in the 1980s?) and via the modern graphical internet
(1990s) was celebrated by a number of technical elite, but it didn't
make the radar screen of the average first-world citizen.
This essay will seek to convince the reader that our Promontory
Point lies yet ahead, inching closer every day and soon to become
obvious to many of us in the first world at large. The frontier
closing excitement will begin again, and then competition will intensify
until a functional first-generation Conversational
Interface (CI) emerges that is powerful enough for all of us
Before discussing that, we can note a number of other interesting
parallels between the construction of the railroad network, the
automobile network, and the creation of today's first-generation
First, as Santa Fe Institute economist Brian Arthur
has argued, the dot com speculation bubble of the 1990s
was in many ways identical to the railroad speculation bubble of
the 1850s. If there's one thing that puts us in a frenzy of irrational
exuberance, it is having a glimpse of an inevitable phase transition
looming just ahead, regardless of whether we can actually reach
it now (unlikely, in most instances) or in coming decades (the way
events usually unfold).
Second, it is clear that the real rapid growth of each of
these new techno-economic sectors always begins after the
initial speculative crash, once the enabling technologies finally
become both cheap enough and mature enough to begin the good work
of rapidly building the vast majority of the network. This process
is just starting now, for the still-stupid, still-slow, still-low-bandwidth
and bug-ridden internet of our early 21st century.
Third, we know there will be a massive consolidation of
companies as first-generation internet technology becomes yet another
commodified and circumscribed industrial sector. This contraction
from a large number of initial, evolutionarily varied, and mostly
untenable companies to a few strong and developmentally strategic
survivors is a process of necessary, creative destruction. As Joseph
Schumpeter reminds us, it all looks quite natural from
a historical, bird's eye view.
Fourth, socioeconomic groups are deeply affected by these
transitions. In the railroad example, the American Indian culture
was very negatively affected. Our reservations were an ineffective
attempt to remedy the damage caused by the closure of the frontier,
yet they were the best response we could conceive at the time. Many
Chinese immigrants, after the railroads were mostly built, were
also negatively affected. Those who integrated into service work
in the newly prosperous cities generally fared better than those
who went into the mines, work which led increasingly to job displacement
by new mechanical technologies. We can and must do better in providing
opportunities to technologically disrupted socioeconomic groups
in the future, as we work toward more responsible, sustainable and
culturally appropriate development.
Fifth, we note with increasing interest that it is the hard-working
'immigrants,' again, who are the most powerful constructive forces
behind the emergence of the new infrastructure. Today's early
global internet is being built by the mindpower of teeming masses
of young programmers in India, Asia, third-world Europe (Poland
and other satellites of the former Soviet Union), Latin America,
and other such developing economic zones. Tech support-trainable
third world youth, waiting to be utilized, may already outnumber
the first-world technical support population by two or three to
one. [These numbers are rough estimates at present. I'm trying to
firm them up.]. Over the next thirty years, I would expect the first
world/third world ratio of competent, trained tech staff to numbers
to rise closer to ten to twenty to one.
This last point stems from the simple mathematics of globalization.
Looking at it from the first world, we realize we can't change
the numerical and cognitive advantage of the third world's
exponentiating technical force, even if we wanted to. There
just aren't enough U.S. children to staff the rapidly growing
technical ranks we are going to create over the next few decades.
Even if we could double the present effectiveness of our science
and technology education, itself a valuable social goal, we
would have little effect on the globalization of technical
A network property is emerging here.
This argues strongly that the best strategic educational goal for
the U.S. and the rest of the first world is to help our children
learn to be come effective collaborators, partners,
and managers of this burgeoning global technical workforce.
The U.S. technical and managerial work force will work smartest
by helping all the most eager and globally productive humans
to come together rapidly, fluidly and flexibly to develop all manner
of technological and social solutions to human problems. In the
process, we should expect to increasingly minimize and bypass politics
in this new bottom-up driven world we are creating. Managers need
a basic science and technological fluency, but most importantly,
they must know where to find the world's natural, technical, and
human resources, and how to work with them in ethical, non-zero
sum creative interactions that are strongly desired by all the participants.
As the internet matures, keep your eye out for social software solutions
(collaboration-oriented outgrowths of today's multi-player video
games) that will allow our rapidly communicating, highly interactive
Millenial generation engage in this kind of global entrepreneurship
with increasing ease.
We all know that our manufacturing base, the old network, became
multinational in the late 20th century's Manufacturing Globalization
Revolution. Large companies either voluntarily downsized and outsourced
much of their first world manufacturing, or they fell victim to
the unstoppable shift. Never again can the U.S. be a major labor
center for the world's manufacturinga numerical disadvantage,
technological diffusion, and an increasingly developed and borderless
world ensures this must be so.
A careful initial analysis suggests that we are in the beginning
stages of what might be called an Information Technology (IT) Globalization
Revolution, a new phase of accelerating development where our emerging
planetary internet and many of its IT services will very soon be
built primarily by third-world intelligence, for the greatest
absolute economic benefit of the first world, and yet for the greatest
relative benefit of the third world, in a major step toward
closure of our still widening rich-poor divide.
Over the last fifty years, the economic difference between the
top fifth and bottom fifth of the world's populace has increased
from a multiplier of approximately 35 to 1 to 80 to 1. Systems dynamics
tell us this trend must eventually saturate and reverse, as the
planet is a sphere of limited size becoming an increasingly uniformly
and densely linked network.
That is poetic justice on a broad scale. It may be true that the
major third-world advantages of this massive new construction project
won't be realized until after the conversational interface arrives,
when any curious human mind, regardless of background or resources,
will be increasingly able to make use of the system as an educational,
communication, and collective produtivity tool. But that is only
a short-term detail. It doesn't change the long-term nature of what
we are doing, creating a more informationally equitable world system
that is now so close to emerging that we can finally see it, waiting
patiently ahead, like Promontory Point.
At present, almost everyone writing about third-world development
doesn't yet fully appreciate what's coming on the technological
side, the incredibly unifying anthill that is now being rapidly
built by all the lean and hungry technological newcomers in Bangalore
and Beijing, in Puna and Prague. Furthermore, when technology pundits
do notice the recent phenomenon of third-world technological advance,
they often commit the sin of overestimating the future social and
economic effect of the newcomers. Again, they don't see that the
emerging network is the organizing force, and is the best vantage
point from which to consider the developmental trajectory of the
The proposition that today's third-world technical workforce will
soon dominate the first world is as much of a myth as the proposal,
once seriously entertained, that underfunded and ill-experienced
dot com entrepreneurs would displace brick-and-mortar industry.
The sobering reality is that these talented third world newcomers
won't even be able to stay independent of first-world employers
in coming years, much less take over the planetary software industry.
As always, the network is king.
Some of the fastest growing employers in India, for example, are
now U.S. companies like Microsoft. How long did it take for that
to happen? As soon as the network infrastructure matures a bit further,
all of the best emerging talent in the global economy will
come into economic association with the present holders of capital.
Not only multinationals, but all the mid-size and mom-and-pop first-world
entrepreneurs that go global are already gaining the tremendous
leverage of the international workforce. That is heartening for
a future of perennial competition in emerging technologies.
So we see that the railroad analogy truly holds. Even with all
their technical expertise, the new global technological work force
really is the blue collar productive class in the present planetary
economic hierarchy. Like the 19th century Chinese railroad laborers,
third-world information technology workers will be the underappreciated
heroes on the front lines, rapidly constructing today's transcontinental
railroadan intelligent planetary software and hardware network
for all to use.
Interface: The Golden Spike in Tommorow's Internet
Hearkening back to history, we note that as the Promontory
Point completion drew near, San Francisco contractor
David Hewes had a solid gold spike
created to commemorate the event. Its head was engraved
with the words "The Last Spike", and its sides with
the names of some of the prominent movers of the day.
The golden spike was ceremoniously driven home at the
completion of the network. The gold signified the unprecedented
social and economic wealth that would be catalyzed by
this revolutionary new technological platform in subsequent
decades, a fitting end to a grand effort.
So, what is the golden spike for today's burgeoning internet?
What level of usability will we require before the net becomes
a unifying technology on the human frontier? Where exactly
will we find our next great Promontory Point? We suggest it
will emerge when technology developers create a conversational
interface (CI) that is, at least technically, minimally
useable by everyone in world, regardless of their education,
language, or culture. It will need to be one that is free,
or at least affordable to working adults in all nations. It
will need to be fast, ubiquitous, reasonably reliable, and
at least smart enough for children (and many adults) to access
on a frequent basis, whenever their curiosity causes them
to seek more information about the world in which they live.
We leave more precise definitions for others. It is clear
from present developments (todays CIs for directory assistance,
flight information, stock quotations, etc.) that there will
be many small, domain-specific CIs en route to grander ones.
Yet there will come an inevitable time when we will all
feel connected, symbiotic with our technological extensions,
and thenceforth forever naked outside the matrix.
We know it must be a largely stupid interface at first, speaking
back to us in a 'pidgin' language with intelligence only in
very circumscribed domains, such as cellphone, basic skills
education, tool use, internet surfing, communications and
productivity software, and other commonly accessed tasks.
Nevertheless, with the entire planet coming to depend upon
it on a daily basis, it is also clear that this interface
will quickly become a more fluid and knowledgeable information
source, for an ever-growing variety of subjects, than most
humans we know.
How much would you presently pay for a cellphone-PDA that
you did not need to touch to use, one that has no keypad?
What would you give for a GPS-linked cellphone that could
tell you the closest and cheapest place to find a product
or service, one that would allow you to shop a store by video
telepresence, and if it was one of those rare things you couldn't
do by telepresence, provide realtime driving directions, given
present traffic conditions? How about a phone that could relate
all the interesting events occurring in your area that night,
including what your friends have publicly posted to the "voice
board" about their evening activities? Would you like
one that could remind you of your calendar, inform, entertain,
and enlighten you on any practical subject you don't presently
Would you like a wearable phone-garment you can speak to
by name, one that can provide news, entertainment, or ready
answers to such questions as "the definition of transmute"
(to change or alter in form, appearance, or nature, especially
to a higher form), or "the name of that popular book
on liberty recently written by that Newsweek guy" (The
Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria,
2003), or verbal help in fixing any of your technologies when
they invariably break? Would you like one that could archive
and play back portions of anything you've said, seen,
or heard in recent years, for your own edification? Each of
these functionalities are add-ons to the basic CI structure,
but we see where the system is headedtoward a profoundly
empowering and awareness-raising human environment..
Today's computer telephony applications (e.g. Bell
Canada's Emily, or Delta's
flight information system), being installed widely by
such progressive companies as Nuance
are a clear foreshadowing of what we can expect in coming
decades. These systems should be aggressively supported and
promoted, as they are part of the developmental lineage of
the CI to come. Their advancement should be a high priority
for funding at the governmental level, over many other less
strategic priorities, and we should strive to subsidize their
emergence in the business world, wherever they make economic
A few historical acknowlegements are in order. Both longstanding
governmental funding (e.g., DARPA) and a few exceedingly large
companies (IBM, AT&T) have been working hard on the problems
behind the CI (voice recognition, text-to-speech, natural
language processing, language translation, artificial intelligence)
for at least fifty years. A long string of early, ambitious
projects have had only very minor success in these domains.
So what's special about this decade? Quite a lot, in fact..
The early 21st century is seeing a grand convergence of
economic and technological opportunity for CI advances.
We finally have an impressive base of CI-ready appliances
(ubiquitous cellphones, a rarity until the last few years),
platforms (voice-over-IP), impressive processor speeds, plentiful
memory, increasingly cheap connectivity, reasonable bandwidth,
critical new speech standards (e.g., voiceXML,
etc.) and myriad application environments (every major website
can be voice enhanced).
There are now significant economic incentives for our "zeroth
generation" CIs to emerge, and as the recent growth of
(e.g., Tellme) has shown,
CI-related software is now powerful enough to deliver value
in the business world. Consider this: in 1993, artificial
intelligence (neural networks, expert systems, belief networks,
decision support, and agents) received less than a billion
dollars a year of funding, almost none commercial. These subjects,
only a decade ago, were primarily governmentally funded curiosities.
By 2003, these fields of AI had collectively grown to 13 billion
dollars, the vast majority of this commercially funded. Artificial
intelligence applications, as incremental enhancement of web-based
systems, has finally arrived, and we can now reasonably expect
the CI is soon to follow.
None of this guarantees that we will be particularly intelligent
in our early development of these new technologies. Again,
history may help us from repeating our mistakes, if we let
it. Do you recall, in the 1980's, when many major publishing
houses blew millions of dollars in "multimedia"
development? That was the buzzword of the era, and yet CD-based
graphical narratives, served up on slow, low-resolution machines
turned out to be a noncompelling technology. The internet
replaced multimedia, less than a decade later. We got carried
away and overinvested. In the 1990's we did the same thing
with dot com, with "fiber" and "wireless"
in our telecom upgrades, and have done so many times in the
past with other immature, early-stage platforms. We are now
threatening to do the same with "nanotechnology"
(cross your fingers, the jury is still out in this regard).
All this overinvestment doesn't make the technologies intrinsically
wrong. What's often mistaken is the strategy we choose:
the level of commercial investment relative to maturity, the
ratios of applied to basic research and development, and the
choice of initial products and services to bring to market.
In the rush to achieve market dominance, companies often don't
balance their investment with what will actually be used.
At any particular point, there are only a very small number
of applications that are the most cost-effective for any developing
technology. Such is the case with all IT hardware and software.
We need to be smart about our incremental investment. Especially
now that the CI, like AI, has moved from a government-supported
dream to a nascent commercial reality.
In short, we've still got long way to go. But here in 2003,
with growing commercial success, we can see the incremental
steps we'll be taking to construct the CI dream. In a more
mature form, the CI uniquely represents an intelligence interface
that is so sophisticated, so inexpensive, and so natural that
no education or economic resources are needed to use it. It
is a true equalizer, allowing all of the world's populace
to learn as fast as their curiosity will drive them, and to
use spoken language to direct an ever-growing range of increasingly
intelligent, self-provisioning, and self-repairing machinery
in their daily lives.
It is a sobering fact that the first world could never afford
to provide, in human form, the basic educational and productivity
resources to the third-world populace that tomorrow's crudely
intelligent linguistic interfaces will soon provide. There
are just too few of us, and too many who have been denied
our standard of living. The fact that only 10% of our planet
presently lives with any real wealth is a dictate of the old
hierarchical model, one that has served its purpose for a
prior developmental phase of history but one that is soon
to be outmoded by our new network model, in the same way that
democracy ultimately outcompetes autocracy once information
flow among human citizens becomes rich and varied enough
for them to think for themselves.
|As Teilhard de Chardin
Human Phenomenon, 1955/99), modern communications
are in the process of "cephalizing," or creating
a head for, the entire planet. We will all soon be linked
as one unitary high-density system, in political and economic
structures that are much flatter, less divided, and more
amorphous than the pyramidal structures of the past. It
now seems inevitable that the "first phone call" that
most of the Bottom Three Billion (B3B) human beings will
make will be not only to each other but also to a partially
intelligent machine, to receive useful information or
to command some simple function.
Perhaps the most interesting question is when the ability
to make this phone call will become an implicit or explicit
right of every human being on the planet. In 2015? 2030? 2050?
In many ways, the steepness of the third world technological
development curve is ours to choose. In a democratic society,
once the price of learning becomes cheap enough, the opportunity
to learn at a new more complex level becomes a natural right
of the citizenry. We see this in U.S. society where the right
to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness affords us
free public education. Without adequate education, there is
no liberty. The CI will soon usher in a level of global sophistication,
informed individual liberty, and liberal democracy that we
can today scarcely imagine. Could Victorian society have imagined
In the same way that trains are mass transit solutions in
such places as India, Mexico, and Africa today, the CI will
fittingly be the mass education solution of the generation
that grows up from 2020-2040, if we are successful in bringing
it to life over the next two decades.
Again, the real question, the one we have the most control
over, is just how rapidly we are committed to making this
Can we appropriately prioritize this coming developmental
phase transition in our information technology, one which
is currently in competition with so many other less important,
more evolutionary, and yet still quite pressing issues of
the day? Can we get the world's populace excited about the
daily progress we are making on the general-purpose CI in
those present specialized domains where it already improves
their daily life? Can we chart our annual progress toward
a first-generation internet-interfaced CI becoming at least
technically, if not politically, available to every child
on the planet who desires it?
I think we can. Promontory Point can be defined and worked
toward with increasing hope, energy, and excitement every
year. Let's do our best to make communications and computing
progress top priorities in our political, economic, and social
choices in these few and final remaining "frontier years"
before the Symbiotic Era.
The Wild West can't continue forever, though it sometimes
seems it can, when we look at our presently primitive
Once we have railroads, civilization inevitably moves
in. So it must be with tomorrow's Conversational Interface to the planetary internet. Accelerating compassion,
education, security, social justice, creativity, and
individual and cultural diversity must follow.
We at the Acceleration Studies Foundation want to do all we can to catalyze Earth's
exodus from the Wild West, while protecting those who might
be hurt by ongoing development. We'd like to do our small
part to make tomorrow's interconnected and naturally interfaced
world arrive as soon as possible, as long as we are following
a responsible path in the process. Would you like to join
in our efforts to explore and publicize the benefits of Promontory
Send us an email at mail(at)accelerating.org. Let's make