"OK Google/Siri/Alexa/Cortana, What's Next?"

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Penn's School of Arts and Sciences sponsors a series of "60 Second Lectures", where

Penn Arts and Sciences faculty take a minute out by the Ben Franklin statue in front of College Hall to share their perspectives on topics ranging from human history and the knowable universe to fractions and fly-fishing.

This past week, they asked me to do it, and I chose the title

"OK Google/Siri/Alexa/Cortana, What's Next?"

My prepared text:

In the summer of 2015, I gave a talk to a bunch of economists with the title “Why Human Language Technology (almost) works”. Already at that time, it was harder than I expected to create plausible examples of failures in speech recognition, machine translation, and information retrieval (though I did succeed in making the systems fail…)

Three years later, the technology is better. One area of improvement is awareness of context – conversational as well as spatial, physiological, financial, and so on.

There are still significant unsolved problems, but conversational AI is good enough and convenient enough that we can extrapolate to a world with smarter smart phones, and more and more “smart” homes, “smart” cars, “smart” hotel rooms, “smart” bar rooms, …, all integrated with your conversational history (and maybe not just your calls and texts), as well as your location history, physiological signals from your wearables, knowledge of all your purchases – and with the same information about everybody else.

This will be a great convenience. But some of it will be like having your parents (or your insurance company or your government) looking over your shoulder 24/7. Maybe exactly like that.

So in the end this is a cultural, social, and political question, not a technological one. You should think about it!

In rehearsal, I was able to get through these 213 words in just under 60 seconds. I hope that I made it in the actual performance as well, though there was no gong or other device to prevent people from going over time.




  1. Nathan said,

    September 29, 2018 @ 7:53 am

    Is there a sly West Wing reference here, or am I imagining that?

    [(myl) I'm not sure what the reference would be, so it's probably a coincidence — but tell us more…]

  2. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 29, 2018 @ 11:13 am

    MYL: "What's next?" was President Barlet's tag line in that show for moving meetings along.

    [(myl) If there was an influence, it was a subliminal one…]

  3. AntC said,

    September 29, 2018 @ 4:24 pm

    there was no gong or other device to prevent people from going over time.

    "OK Alexa: sound a gong or other device at 60 seconds to prevent me from going over time."

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 29, 2018 @ 7:11 pm

    Did it take you less than four weeks to write?

    "I am reminded of an incident told of Rufus Choate, who being asked to make a speech on a certain occasion said, 'If it is to be a minute speech I shall need four weeks in which to prepare, if a half hour speech, then two weeks, but if I am to talk all day I’m ready now.'”

    —Rev. J. N. Hall in 1895, according to Quote Investigator, which gives a number of other variants.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    September 29, 2018 @ 7:58 pm

    I recently watched all of The West Wing, and while I'm prepared to believe that President Bartlet says "what's next" in meetings, that phrase did not register with me in any way. I would equally believe he goes the whole show without saying it once.

    Pretty low-key for a tagline.

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 29, 2018 @ 9:28 pm

    Michael: Here you go.


    But I agree it's not the first thing I think of when someone says "What's next?"

  7. Geoff said,

    September 30, 2018 @ 10:06 am

    @Jerry Friedman
    There is a story that G B Shaw once ended a letter to the Times with 'PS, I'm sorry that this letter is so long, but I didn't have time to make it shorter.'

  8. Viseguy said,

    September 30, 2018 @ 5:29 pm

    > https://youtube.com/watch?v=gSUHgAp7V7c

    The generically-majestic "West Wing" theme music, which I never really paid attention to before, hit me hard when I clicked this link just now. What would the theme music be if the series were being made today? Would there be any music at all? No wit, no laughter, no music in this West Wing, so maybe John Cage's 4'33" — or even better, his Cheap Imitation.

  9. Benjamin Massot said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 5:47 am

    Two literary references come to my mind here. The Circle by Dave Eggers in 2013, and even closer to this post's topic, unfortunately only in German, QualityLand by Marc-Uwe Kling in 2017 ("In QualityLand lautet die Antwort auf alle Fragen »OK«." — "In QualityLand, the answer to all questions is «OK»."). I could improvise an hour about this last book, but I'm too short of time to sum it up in a short paragraph… :)

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 12:04 pm

    Geoff: The Quote Investigator traces the "shorter letter" one to Blaise Pascal here.

  11. James Wimberley said,

    October 3, 2018 @ 9:02 am

    Hey, 213 words is cheating, as hardly anybody can follow speech that fast. My one-minute history of the world (shameless advert ) comes in at a stately BBC 117 wpm. It helps not to have tenure, or any kind of scholarly reputation to safeguard.

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