A future where chatbots make personal conversation a costly luxury

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Tay, the “teen girl” chatbot, has gone, grounded by her parents at Microsoft after Twitter converted her into a hate-filled, foul-mouthed racist. It should not have come as a surprise. Twitter does that to people, too.But if the evolutionary timeline of much new technology holds — first ridicule, then fear, then acceptance — Tay, or her better-behaved cousins, will be back. Before long many people will be happy to converse with bots.

Ultimately, I think this means intelligent human interaction, unmediated by machines and uninterrupted by technology, will be a luxury that some people are prepared to pay handsomely to enjoy.

This is already happening. The digital detox break is not just a fad. Consultants sell their services to people who need help getting away from technology overload. Hotels are hosting retreats for the hyper-connected. One markets a suite, costing more than €1,000 a night, with a silver switch that activates a signal-blocking copper grid.

The opportunity for discussion is the implicit — and often explicit — promise of high-end conferences and forums. The more you pay, the loftier the company. The genius of the World Economic Forum’s infamous badge system is that it creates tiers of access at Davos. Participants’ paranoia is powered by the sense that while you rub shoulders with ministers and chief executives, someone, somewhere is having a more exclusive conversation.

A second reason why face-to-face encounters will be sold as a costly indulgence is that the same has already happened with other experiences transformed by technology.

Digitisation came first for the wristwatch, progressing through quartz-powered versions to the computerised clocks on your smartphone screen. Craftsmen, though, still successfully sell less accurate, wind-up watches at prices that only those in search of status symbols or one-off gifts can afford.

Similarly, the CD, the download and the streaming of digital music have created space at the top end for premium vinyl albums. As ebooks have taken hold, publishers have also turned the physical item into a sumptuous artefact, tailored for the gift market. Fans flock to pricey live performances.

Lack of time is another factor pushing conversation upmarket. As full-time employment fractures into freelancing, future generations of gig-workers will need to be “always on” to seek and complete the multiple jobs they do. Technology will be their omnipresent assistant.

At last year’s Global Peter Drucker Forum in Vienna, Sherry Turkle of MIT, whose book Reclaiming Conversation chronicles the negative effect of constant electronic connection, pointed out that when executives ask younger staff to “talk to customers”, the boss sometimes has to check they have “talked with their mouths”, because juniors assume email exchanges are a substitute. “There is a business case for conversation,” she writes in her book, but it requires leadership to break the cycle of avoidance. Leadership and, I would add, entrepreneurial nous, as is evident in the success of companies renting out shared space, arranged to encourage spontaneous meetings.

Meanwhile, new technology, from AI bots to multi-user virtual reality, will catch on. For now, donning a headset and meeting in a VR chatroom is, as one Guardian columnist wrote recently, just odd: “You think you’re in the same space but you’re not.” It will improve, just as Tay’s progeny — computerised Eliza Doolittles coached by AI’s equivalent of Pygmalion’s Henry Higgins — will be better at holding forth in polite company.

At some point, though, generations raised digitally will rediscover the value of real conversation, as they are rediscovering the virtues of LPs and books. Quiet carriages on trains will be reinvented as chatty ones, where travellers can pay extra to escape the rows of grimacing and chortling commuters in VR headsets. Salons, moderated by top conversationalists, will spring up for those who have the money to buy time there.

Not all conversation will happen in these privileged, paid-for places. Chat and sex are among the few mutually enjoyable human pastimes that should cost nothing. Silicon Valley’s obsession with chatbots suggests, though, that technology may fill the space people used to set aside for one, and perhaps both. That could turn face-to-face discussion into the ultimate luxury. Maybe we should talk about it.


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